Media’s scorched earth approach bodes ill for all minorities

  • Written by Greg Erlandson, Our Sunday Visitor
  • Published in Commentary
A same-sex couple from England holds their British marriage certificate in 2014. Photo: CNS/Will Oliver, EPA A same-sex couple from England holds their British marriage certificate in 2014. Photo: CNS/Will Oliver, EPA

A bemused West Coast friend of mine recently wondered how often pizza is served at gay weddings in Indiana. His comment was provoked by a Hoosier pizzeria that grandly announced it would not cater gay weddings. The announcement provoked threats, a boost in sales and some eye-rolling from California foodies.

It was just one of the stranger stories to follow Indiana’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The uproar, fed by reporting that suggested the law gave carte blanche to discriminate at will, had Hoosier politicians beating a quick retreat. It is probably safe to say that Gov. Mike Pence’s presidential ambitions are on hold, and his government has now done the only respectable thing allowed when such a faux pas has been committed: pay $2 million to a New York City public relations firm to get it out of this mess.

Lost in the debacle, however, is the scorched earth approach taken to Indiana by the news media. It is only the latest reminder that bullying doesn’t stop at the schoolyard fence. Combined with more recent news and opinion columns, it suggests a concerted effort to marginalize anyone and any institution that does not agree with the recently received wisdom on gay marriage, and it bodes ill for other minority opinions in our brave new world.

The repeated threats of boycott, the use of social media and the bias of most news media reporting to publicly shame dissident opinions on this topic have been truly extraordinary, and go a long way toward explaining the meteoric mainstreaming of gay marriage in American society. Now The New York Times has reported that top-rated law firms are refusing to defend proponents of traditional marriage, in part out of fear that they will not be able to attract new lawyers and will lose clients.

A long and proud tradition

Since religious freedom laws do not endorse bigotry but simply allow claimants their day in court, this unwillingness of the best firms to even take the cases is significant. One of the few lawyers willing to comment on the record was Michael McConnell, a former federal appeals court judge who teaches law at Stanford.

“The level of sheer desire to crush dissent is pretty unprecedented,” he told the Times. McConnell said that in the current climate, important distinctions are lost: “One is that it is possible to favor same-sex marriage as a policy matter without believing that the Constitution requires it.”

The Times’ report noted that there is a “long and proud tradition” in the U.S. legal system of defending unpopular clients, from presidential assassins to the alleged terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. Yet defenders of marriage, as it has been understood for thousands of years in multiple cultures, are now too hot to merit such defense.

That a more libertarian view toward sexual preferences and gender issues is becoming the majority opinion cannot be denied. Surveys say Catholics, too, have adopted much more of a “live and let live” approach, and most agree that acts of bigotry and the denial of human dignity is never to be tolerated. But this is not likely to satisfy the Church’s critics.

In a recent column by Frank Bruni in the Times, he quotes gay activist Mitchell Gold, who suggests only unconditional surrender by the churches will satisfy: “Gold told me that church leaders must be made ‘to take homosexuality off the sin list.’” It is likely to be a rocky ride for Catholics in the coming years. The challenge for the Church will be to carve out a third way, avoiding the rhetoric of the culture wars, affirming the dignity of all, but not abandoning that which with it has been entrusted.

This column was originally published by Our Sunday Visitor on April 15, 2015, and is reprinted with permission. Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.