Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

On the Pain of Discrimination and the Role of Law and Government (Part One)

I’ve been encouraged to post to the Mirror of Justice some more of my posts to the ReligionLaw list, this time in the ongoing debate among legal scholars about the proper balance (if any) between enforcing statutes prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation (and other bases) and protecting religious liberty.  Some have argued that the law is properly used to protect everyone against the pain of discrimination, even when goods and services remain readily available from others and thus there is no concrete harm being addressed, and further that no religious liberty exemptions should be permitted.  Below is the beginning of my response:


In reading several messages poignantly describing the pain of suffering discrimination, I was reminded of something that I observed on the streets of a major American city to which I was traveling.  On a major downtown pedestrian thoroughfare, two young people, looking to be in their early twenties, were handing out flyers and trying to engage passers-by in conversation.  Their t-shirts, leaflets, and spoken words readily identified them as evangelical Christians preaching the Gospel.  Their persistence in the face of a rather disdainful audience, as well as the tone and message, confirmed that they were speaking from the heart and acting in furtherance of what they understood to be a genuine calling to share good news with others.

The response was anything but receptive; indeed, it was, no two ways around it, frequently hostile and, yes, bigoted.  While most of those walking by simply ignored the two or gave them a cold stare as they passed, several made derogatory remarks, laughed or jeered loudly, or even told them to “[epithet deleted] off.”  No one physically accosted the two, and the comments did not provoke any violence, so I don’t think it could be called disorderly conduct.  But the targeted response was despicable in manner.

The two evangelists never responded in kind, instead saying “God bless you” or “Jesus loves you” to each person.  But it was plain that the hostile treatment left its psychological mark.  The young woman, who I am guessing was the veteran at street ministry, seemed less impacted.  But the young man was shaken, as I could tell from his mannerisms, what looked to be tears in his eyes, and the quaver that appeared in his voice after he received a particularly vituperative comment.

Now what these two evangelical Christians experienced was plainly “discrimination.”  And it was blatant and invidious discrimination.  The remarks were not merely negative and disrespectful, but many were hateful and cruel.  And the basis for the discrimination plainly was their religious identity and message.  In the words of more than one poster to this list over the past day, these two were suffering an injury to their dignity, the pain of rejection, and the shame of stigma based on their identity.

Despite the undeniable fact that these two were the victims of discriminatory treatment and that they plainly felt the sting of that discrimination, I am guessing that all or most on this list will agree with me that it would be inappropriate to use the power of government to prevent such unfortunate behavior in the future or to pass a law that would compel those who pass by to treat evangelists with respect.  And I think that choice to refrain from use of government and law is correct for at least two reasons.

First, a legally binding directive to treat evangelists – or for that matter others who present a message – with respect, or instead a government regulation that induces such respect at the cost of some type of sanction or withheld benefit, would be difficult to separate from an improper government endorsement of the message at issue.  At the very least, legal action would put the heavy thumb of the government on the side of refraining from expressing opposition or indifference to a value-laden message.

But, second, it simply is not the proper role of government to enforce standards of courtesy or to wield legal power (as contrasted with appropriate exercise of persuasion) to shape human interactions.  I definitely assert a moral right to be treated with dignity, but I do not have a legal right in a free society to demand that other private citizens extend such courtesy to me or even refrain from being discourteous.  (By statute, of course, I do have the right to object to even private discrimination on certain grounds when it denies me the necessary tools for educational and economic opportunity.  That’s something on which I’ll comment more later – but this post is already too long.  My specific point here is that the real pain of discrimination alone, unaccompanied by something concrete like an economic deprivation, is like other failures in human behavior that are not properly the subject of government and where the imprudent use of law often transgresses the fundamental rights of some while attempting to address the grievances of others.)

Instead, it belongs to all of us, with personal commitment, through investment of time and talents, by telling our stories, and in how we live our lives, to enhance human dignity.  We should resist the temptation to delegate that responsibility to government, through its use of power or its imposition of laws and liabilities.  In a free society, we do not empower the government to shape our souls.  That remains our job as the people.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink