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Should we tolerate religious immorality? 

Special education teacher Michael Stack resigned from San Luis Obispo High School last week as a result of public outrage against his criticism of the LGBT community in the school newspaper. Whether or not one believes that Mr. Stack was acting under protection of his First Amendment rights in this context, and whether or not those who disagreed with his statements were justified in their response, we need to acknowledge the deeper issue of how our society negotiates the tension between religious freedom and public morality.

While the vast majority of locals, including most Christians, appear to have disagreed with Mr. Stack’s claims, the uncomfortable truth is that his reading of Christian scripture is accurate. The question of how homosexuals, or anyone who commits “unnatural” acts, should be treated is not ambiguous in the Bible: We should kill them. Indeed, if we use the Old Testament as a guide to morality, we should kill the gays (Leviticus 20:13), adulterers (Leviticus 20:10), people who masturbate (Genesis 38:9-10), children who talk back (Proverbs 20:20), and, of course, all non-believers (2 Chronicles 15:12-13). This is just a short list. It’s no exaggeration to say that the God of the Old Testament is a genocidal maniac.

Again, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the U.S. reject these commands outright, all commands handed down by the same God of Abraham. Christians typically have a neat trick for adapting their moral code, captured nicely in Hebrews 8:13, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Many Christians take such claims to mean that Jesus died for the sins of humanity and brought forth a new set of rules, reflected in the New Testament.

Mr. Stack probably adheres to some version of this adaptation, as he quotes the New Testament in his LGBT criticism. Yet the New Testament still commands that gays “deserve to die.” Indeed, it is not much better than the Old as a guide to morality when it comes to homosexuality, the treatment of women, and even slavery. Yet most Christians have abandoned such barbarian codes. The majority of self-identified Christians in the U.S. now support same-sex marriage, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, and while attitudes about women’s rights are also still mixed, it would be difficult to find a Christian who still supports slavery as a “natural” condition.

Indeed, a 2013 Pew Survey showed that only Evangelical Protestants are still overwhelmingly opposed (64 percent) to same-sex marriage, much more so than U.S. Muslims (52 percent), for example. Most Americans, whether they base their morality on theological, philosophical, or scientific grounds, have come to the moral realization that more harm is done by discriminating against those who identify as LGBT, than by embracing the equal standing of all consensual, adult sexual relationships. There remain serious, important disagreements between people regarding age of consent and the morality of historically discriminatory arrangements such as polygamy. But the vast majority of Americans rightly see Mr. Stack’s claims, accurate as they are, as immoral. Sexual and gender-based discrimination is wrong, and people who do it are bad.

Can a free society afford to tolerate religious immorality? Are we not giving people a free pass when they use religion to justify their bigotry and hatred? While religious claims should have no special authority, we must tolerate some level of bigotry, hatred, and intolerance, if tolerance is part of our moral creed. Democracy requires it; indeed democracy embodies it. This is precisely what James Madison illuminated in Federalist No. 10 in his famous claim that “liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” that as long as we have the liberty to exercise our reason freely, we are going to have differences of opinion. In other words, living in a democracy means living with assholes.

How do we deal with assholes in a democracy? We certainly do not visit upon them the ancient injustice that they would impose upon us: We don’t kill them. Rather, we limit the damage they do by requiring that they respect the rights of those they oppose. Mr. Stack and other Evangelicals must respect anti-discrimination laws. But that does not require that we silence them; their expression is their right to participate in democracy. The editors of the school paper were right to publish the letter. Students need to learn how democracies come to moral decisions. Public morality emerges as a competition over moral claims in democracies, and the best arguments win. It’s a huge improvement over killing each other, and why we must work to sustain our democratic institutions when they are under assault. Through democracy, we are able to liberate ourselves from the regimen of our barbarous ancestors.

Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com. Write a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com.

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