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Equal Rights vs. Special Rights

Guaranteeing Civil Equality does not mean Granting Special Privileges

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A common Christian Right argument against protecting gays’ basic civil rights is that gays are seeking “special” rights unavailable to others. This is untrue, but it’s rhetorically powerful and sounds convincing. It's also hypocritical because if any group in America is benefiting from and defending special rights for themselves, it’s religious believers. Why do Christians favor restrictions on gays which they would never accept for themselves?

Gays’ Special Status

The only “special” status gays have is something they abhor rather than seek: not being fully protected by the Constitution. In too many places, gays have no legal protection from being denied a job, a promotion, or housing merely because they are gay. Some go so far as to assert a “religious right” to refuse to provide the same medical treatment to gays as they do to heterosexuals.

It’s arguable that the point of this is the preservation of heterosexual privilege — one of the few traditional privileges remaining today. Male, Christian, and religious privilege have all been under assault through the 20th century, and to varying degrees, all have been undermined. Their future is doubtful; heterosexual privilege, though, seems relatively secure — not absolutely secure, just apparently secure relative to the other privileges.

What is it about some people that they need to feel superior to someone...anyone? There are men who need women to be inferior, Christians who need non-Christians to be inferior, religious believers who need nonbelievers and atheists to be inferior, citizens who need foreigners to be inferior...and heterosexuals who need gays to be inferior. Why can’t those who are different be equal in their differences?

Immutable Characteristics vs. Chosen Behavior

Complaints about “special” rights for gays often rely upon contrasts between homosexuality and characteristics like gender and race. Gender and race cannot be chosen, so it’s reasonable to bar discrimination because of them. Homosexuality, they claim, is a lifestyle choice which does not merit the same protection. That most research shows homosexuality to not be a choice is irrelevant — in part because they define homosexuality as same-sex sexual behavior, not as same-sex attraction.

Even if homosexuality were chosen, though, the “special” rights argument would apply equally to religion. Beliefs may not be chosen through acts of will, but they do involve behaviors and they are not immutable like race or gender. Religion is arguably as much about behavior and lifestyle and homosexuality, if not more so. Thus, a principle argument used by the Christian Right here would deny anti-discrimination protections to religious believers.

The Christian Right probably doesn't think such discrimination is constitutionally or ethically valid as a general principle; instead, they see gays as too abhorrent to remain inside the normal parameters of law and morality. Gays are inferior beings who are so perverse that they shouldn’t be treated as equals.

Special Rights for Religious Believers

Ironically, there is a class of “special rights” in America — but for religious believers, not gays. If a person has a sincere religious belief, they can apply for — and are usually granted — exemptions from generally applicable and neutral laws. Employers, too, are required to accommodate people’s religious beliefs even if this means exempting them from generally applicable, neutral rules in the workplace.

Religious believers enjoy a broad array of special rights and privileges unavailable to others who may want exemptions for non-religious reasons; yet some of these same religious believers whine about gays demanding “special rights” for themselves — rights which amount to no more than the same civil protections which everyone else enjoys. When Christians demand exemptions from laws everyone else has to follow, they are simply demanding the ability to freely exercise their religion; when gays simply want to be able to work and shop without being discriminated against, they are unjustly demanding "special" rights.

Special Rights vs. Equal Rights

When interracial couples fought for the right to marry each other, were they asking for equal rights or special rights? They wanted the same rights as other couples, but conservatives insisted they really wanted special rights. After all, no one was allowed to marry members of another race, so all were treated equally. Right?

It is a profound insult to tell people that their desire to enjoy the same basic rights as other Americans is really a desire to have “special” rights unavailable to others. It’s possible that some Christians do consider housing, jobs, and medical care to be “unusual demands” — at least, when it comes to gays. Homosexuality is condemned by God, so perhaps they don’t deserve the ability to hold a job, to buy food, or to find shelter like other citizens.

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