Over the past year I have devoted a lot of thought to the question of how gay marriage intersects with religious freedom. I am deeply ambivalent about all the issues involved because I am a strong supporter of gay marriage (and have been since I was old enough to think about the question) but also a believer in freedom writ broadly, including religious freedom and freedom of speech. I understand why religious conservatives feel threatened by social change and have no wish to taunt them with their losses in the culture wars.
But that is all theory -- what about the practical issues we are facing in America, especially in universities and legislatures?
About free speech, I remain an uncompromising supporter of liberty. I think it is appalling that people can lose their jobs for restating, politely, the official teachings of churches with a billion members. If their words make you uncomfortable, harden your ears. I have long been ambivalent about tenure for university professors, which often seems mainly to protect the jobs of incompetent old men who long ago stopped caring. But the numerous cases from around the country in which adjuncts have been effectively fired for saying mildly controversial things about gay rights, trans rights, and so on make the point of tenure clear like nothing since the McCarthy hearings.
I have, however, shifted my position about whether businesses should be required to serve gay customers, including the ones getting married. I have done so because I cannot imagine how "religious liberty" policies could work out in practice.
From the Middle Ages down to about 1910, the Mediterranean world was full of cities where different religious ethnic and religious groups mixed. A city like Alexandria or Thessalonika was an ethnic patchwork, with distinct populations of Orthodox Greeks, Orthodox Armenians, Catholic Italians, Turkish Sunnis, Arab Sunnis, Lebanese Shiites, Jews, Samaritans, and more. Although these groups lived side-by-side they rarely mingled. They had separate neighborhoods and patronized different businesses; when necessary the borders between communities were policed by gang battles, riots, or even pogroms. When it came time for a wedding, no Greek would think of ordering food from an Armenian or Jewish merchant; especially for major occasions like weddings and funerals you stayed with your own people.
Though these cities always had some level of ethnic strife, on the whole they worked well for centuries. European travelers of the nineteenth century loved their diversity and vibrancy. In the modern era of nation states, though, they have mostly failed. Across Greece and Turkey the Christians and Muslims turned on each other and drove each other out, leaving the two countries with populations almost entirely of one faith. (In Trebizond, a Greek colony on the Black Sea founded in 700 BCE, there is a sign saying that in 1923 the Greeks "went home.") Beirut, one of the last of the great mixed cities, fell apart into warring enclaves in the late 1970s. Democracy has never worked in such a place.
An America where people divide out by religion seems equally unworkable to me. Would we have towns where half the businesses post signs saying, "No Gays Served Here" and the other half "No Conservative Christians Served Here"? Is that a country anyone wants to live in? Would cities divide into "gay friendly" neighborhoods and "Christian" neighborhoods? Would teenage gangs from the two sides fight it out along the borders, like the Sharks and the Jets?
I am afraid that this is another issue about which a house divided cannot stand. Since I will not surrender the right of gay people to live as full citizens, I think so-called "religious freedom" laws that allow businesses to discriminate against gays will have to go.