May 19th, 2022


'Legal' Doesn't Equate to Moral Approval

Laura Hollis

By Laura Hollis

Published Oct. 23, 2014

Annise Parker, the openly gay Mayor of Houston, caused an uproar last month when her administration issued subpoenas to several pastors in the area, demanding all of their sermons, speeches and other communications with their congregations "related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuals or gender identity."

"HERO" is the acronym for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance passed in May of this year, which extends anti-discrimination protection to gay and transgender individuals. Opponents -- including outspoken Christian ministers -- were outraged that the ordinance permits transgender men to use women's bathrooms, arguing that this poses a threat to the safety of women and girls. They are seeking repeal of the ordinance.

This governmental overreach produced a public outcry -- including from left-thinking organizations like the ACLU. In response, Parker backpedalled on the subpoena requests, claiming not to have read them (despite tweeting that pastors were "fair game" if they used their "pulpits for politics"). But this is just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle to marginalize, sanction and even criminalize Christian viewpoints.

Activists calling for the loosening or elimination of legal sanctions against purely "private" behavior have also asked for "tolerance" and "understanding." Apparently, that is not really enough; they also want approval and moral sanction.

Good luck with that.

As I have argued elsewhere, a society with libertarian leanings is one where some unpopular behaviors are lawful. But there is a world of difference between something being "legal" and its being moral or admirable or even just sensible. A libertarian society has room for criticism of otherwise legal decisions or choices. Pastors, priests and ministers in particular are religious leaders, not lawyers. They do not call their flocks to avoid illegality; their mission is advising followers to do what is moral. They call people to a higher standard.

And there's the rub. Few of us want to be told that we ought not do that which we wish to do.

Nor is this exclusively about homosexuality or transsexuality. In fact, there are far more heterosexual behaviors that run counter to the tenets of the Christian faith, notwithstanding their legality. Divorce is legal. So are cohabitation, contraception, premarital sex and having children outside of marriage. Even adultery has been decriminalized in many states. Christian (and other religious) leaders routinely preach against these -- as well as gambling and drinking, and the use of drugs.

We all have friends and loved ones who have divorced. There are times when divorce is the best of bad options. That doesn't make it great. Many of us also know and love people who have cheated on their spouses or left them for lovers. Does this mean adultery is something to be aspired to? Ditto for having children out of wedlock. One can love and care for the moms and children without proclaiming that unwed mothers and fatherless children is the best that we can do.

And then there is abortion. It's been legal for 41 years. Yet Elle magazine published an article in which Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richard discussed her abortion, as part of the "1 in 3" campaign intended to "end the silence that fuels abortion stigma." It isn't women's silence about abortion that creates the stigma; it is the knowledge that there is something deeply violating about a mother taking her child's life. Let the PR campaigns abound; there will always be a stigma to the decision to end your child's life. I don't think we want to contemplate life in a society where there is no such thing.

Those who have pushed for the legality of their life choices can stand behind that legality. They have the right to argue the morality of those decisions if they so choose. They do not have the right to insist that everyone else in a country of 300 million people agrees with them -- to the point of legal sanction if they do not. It is ironic that those who have claimed for years that "you can't legislate morality" now think you ought to be able to legislate moral approval.

It is also dangerous.

10/20/14: Language in the Service of Life
10/09/14: Why does his administration refuse to protect us?
10/02/14: Toward a More Productive Policy Discourse
09/25/14: That burden called 'motherhood'
09/23/14: Obama's Johnny Bravo Moment

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Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education.