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How should public schools teach the gay marriage movement?
The civil rights movement is taught as a glorious triumph over the forces of bigotry. But using the same approach for same-sex marriage could step on religious liberties.
 
Schools discourage anti-gay bullying, but where does curriculum fit into the debate?
Schools discourage anti-gay bullying, but where does curriculum fit into the debate? (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A recent column of mine on whether opposing gay marriage is morally and legally analogous to being a racist has generated a lot of attention and provoked a fair amount of criticism. And that criticism provides an opportunity for me to push the debate in a somewhat different direction.

But first, a word about one line of criticism that appears to be a result of a misunderstanding.

Because I wrote in defense of the rights of traditionalist Christians and Jews to persist in their sexual views, some concluded that I must favor Kansas' brief flirtation with imposing a legal regime of Jim Crow for gays — or at least that my position implies that such an arrangement would be permissible under the Constitution.

Anyone who has been reading me regularly on this topic would know that this isn't my view at all. As I wrote in a column from March 2013, traditionalists should not get their way on every matter:

[T]he law traditionally limits claims to religious freedom when members of a religious community provide services outside their faith tradition (like adoption or hospital care) or enter the commercial marketplace (by, say, leasing a catering hall for wedding receptions). In such cases, religious traditionalists might be forced to recognize the legal validity of same-sex marriages (while presumably continuing to judge them, on a personal level, as morally and spiritually null and void).

This implies a spectrum: Churches and other explicitly religious organizations should be protected from having to sanctify marriages between same-sex couples. Religiously affiliated institutions (for example, Catholic hospitals and charities) should sometimes be exempted from recognizing gay marriages (perhaps when they provide employee benefits) and sometimes required to do so (maybe when a patient's rights are involved). These and related issues will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis by judges.

What isn't at issue at all for me is the question of whether businesses owned and run by individual religious believers can legally discriminate against gays. Kansas flirted with explicitly permitting this, and Arizona appears poised to attempt it as well. But this won't fly. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act, many public and private retail and service establishments are considered public entities that must conform with state and federal anti-discrimination statutes, as well as relevant constitutional provisions, including equal protection. On all of these grounds, what Kansas and Arizona are attempting will sooner or later (probably sooner) be knocked down. And rightfully so.

Which is just another way of saying that I agree with Scott Lemieux when he argues, in response to my recent column, that allowing individual believers to exempt themselves from laws on grounds of religious freedom is a recipe for anarchy that in most cases shouldn't be permitted.

Yet there is one area where my views and those of my critics may genuinely diverge: How religious freedom should be handled in public schools.

In public schools today throughout the U.S., children are taught that slavery was a moral abomination, that segregation was horribly unjust, that the civil rights movement was entirely justified, that its opponents were racists who deserved to lose, and that although America is a much better place today than it was prior to the civil rights movement, we still have a long way to go in ensuring that black Americas are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, legally, institutionally, and interpersonally.

This is exactly what schools should be teaching.

But what about homosexuality? Should public schools teach a parallel narrative about the gay rights movement? That all moral criticisms of homosexuality are motivated by irrational animus? That virtually the whole of the Judeo-Christian tradition is homophobic? That the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to describe homosexual acts as "objectively disordered," is the moral equivalent of a hate group? That prejudice and ignorance are the only possible grounds for rejecting the legitimacy of gay marriage? That those who oppose it are morally akin to George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door in Alabama in 1963?

It's one thing for individual Americans to believe these things about their fellow citizens. That is a private matter. It's quite another for the public schools — run by the government in part to provide children with a civic education that reflects the (inevitably fractious) moral outlook of the nation as a whole — to inculcate such views, as they are quite likely to start doing in the coming years.

This is where my emphasis on the difference between racism and sexual traditionalism in historic Judaism and Christianity comes in. Public schools can actively educate against racism without challenging fundamental tenets of religion. The same cannot be said about efforts to teach children that homosexual behavior and gay marriage are morally acceptable. Such efforts cannot help but impinge upon the religious freedom of those students and their families.

Strictly — meaning legally — speaking, there might be little that religious traditionalists could do to challenge such a curriculum. The First Amendment's protection of religious free exercise might not apply because it's firmly established in law that families are free to withdraw their children from public schools in favor of private religious schools or homeschooling.

But as a matter of prudence, the public schools — and liberals — should proceed cautiously in such matters. The last thing they should be doing is acting to provoke even greater numbers of religious traditionalists to withdraw from the mainstream civic life of the nation into self-segregated enclaves. That is precisely what will happen if and when public schools begin to denounce traditionalist beliefs about sexuality as backward or rooted in ignorance and unthinking bigotry.

This doesn't mean that public schools should refrain from protecting kids from anti-gay bullying and other forms of verbal and physical abuse. But it does mean that public schools should resist the urge to force the children of traditionalists to affirm secular views of sexual morality — or accept a triumphalist historical narrative on gay marriage.

As I've written before, to do otherwise would be an example of the government using its power to stamp out differences in the name of respecting differences — of acting illiberally in the name of liberalism.

That kind of secular-liberal cockiness is something that all Americans should want to avoid.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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