Gathering Storm

First published at Between the Lines News on April 23, 2009

Leave it to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to try to rain on our parade.

I’m talking about NOM’s “Gathering Storm” ad [] , in which various characters warn that recent gay-rights victories are threatening their fundamental liberties: “There’s a storm gathering. The clouds are dark, and the winds are strong. And I am afraid…”

The ad, in turn, prompted a number of YouTube responses, ranging from hilarious parodies (“There’s a bullshit storm gathering”), to serious fact-checking [], to exposure of the audition tapes.

The latter was embarrassing for NOM, since it highlighted that these frightened folks were actually actors reading lines. (Either that, or every single one of them is both a California doctor AND a Massachusetts parent—and what are the odds of that?)

Personally, I don’t find it overly troubling that the characters are all actors. The ad contained a small-print caption stating as much, and besides, their forced emotion was about as realistic as the lightning in the background.

No, it’s not the use of actors that’s troubling. It’s the fact that virtually everything they say is misleading or false.

The central claim of the ad is that same-sex marriage threatens heterosexuals’ freedoms: “My freedom will be taken away….I will have no choice.”

One would think that Iowa and Vermont had just declared same-sex marriage mandatory.

But of course, they did no such thing. They simply acknowledged that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to the same legal rights and responsibilities as their straight counterparts.

How does this threaten anyone’s freedom? The ad mentions three cases—presumably the best examples they have—to illustrate the alleged danger:

(1) “I’m a California doctor who must choose between my faith and my job.”

Not exactly. California doctors can practice whatever faith they like—as long as it doesn’t interfere with patient care. The case in question involves a doctor who declined to perform artificial insemination for a lesbian couple, thus violating California anti-discrimination law.

I can appreciate the argument that a liberal society protects religious freedom, and that we should thus allow doctors in non-emergency cases to refer patients to their colleagues for procedures which violate their consciences.

But what are the limits of such exemptions? What if a doctor opposed divorce, and thus refused to perform insemination for a heterosexual woman in her second marriage? What if she opposed interfaith marriage, and refused to perform insemination for a Christian married to a Jew, or even for a Catholic married to a Methodist?

Or what if a doctor refused to perform insemination for anyone except Muslims, on the grounds that children ought only to be raised in Muslim households? These are questions our opponents never bother to consider when they play the religious-conscience card.

(2) “I’m part of a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can’t support same-sex marriage.”

No, you’re (an actor playing) part of a New Jersey church group that operates Ocean Grove Camp. Ocean Grove Camp received a property-tax exemption by promising to make its grounds open to the public; it also received substantial tax dollars to support the facility’s maintenance. It then chose to exclude some of those taxpayers—in this case, a lesbian couple wishing to use the camp’s allegedly “public” pavilion for their civil union ceremony. So naturally, New Jersey revoked the pavilion’s (though not the whole camp’s) property-tax exemption.

(3) “I am a Massachusetts parent helplessly watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is OK.”

Massachusetts parents—like any other parents—can teach their children what they wish at home. What they cannot do is dictate public school curriculum so that it reflects only the families they like.

What these complaints make abundantly clear is that by “freedom,” our opponents mean the freedom to live in a world where they never have to confront the fact that others choose to exercise their freedom differently.

In other words, they intend the very opposite of a free society.

According to the NOM ad, in seeking marriage equality, gay-rights advocates “want to change the way I live.”

There is a tiny grain of truth in this latter claim. Marriage is a public institution. If you enter the public sphere, you may think or feel or say whatever you like about someone’s marriage, but you nevertheless must respect its legal boundaries.

Even so, I think our opponents have incredible chutzpah to frame this issue as being about personal liberty. Freedom means freedom to differ, not to obliterate difference.

Or as Wanda Sykes aptly put it, capturing the irony of the freedom complaint:

“If you don’t believe in same-sex marriage…then don’t marry somebody of the same sex.”