Overweening moralism is, if you believe most of what you read in the newspapers, the unique sin of conservative religious people. Of course, it isn't actually trueas witness this latest example of moralism, a secular-liberal moralism imposed by law, from Great Britain. At issue was whether the Catholic Church would be forced to comply with proposed sexual-orientation anti-discrimination laws that would require publicly funded Catholic adoption agencies to place children with gay couples.Up until a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair was in favor of a conscience exemption for the Church, but after a revolt from his Cabinet, Blair announced there would be no exemptions: Instead, everyone would be given a twenty-one-month transition period to comply with the law.
Needless to say, things didn't turn out the way the Church had hoped. The archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, sent a letter to Blair and the other members of the Cabinet, urging them to allow the Church freedom to operate according to Church teaching. He even lent support for many of the goals of the proposed legislation: "The Catholic Church utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual. Indeed the Church teaches that they must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. We, therefore, recognize many elements of recent legislationincluding much in the Northern Ireland Regulationsthat takes steps to ensure that no such discrimination takes place."
But, the cardinal continued, "Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life, a teaching shared not only by other Christian Churches but also other faiths, means that Catholic adoption agencies would not be able to recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents. We believe it would be unreasonable, unnecessary and unjust discrimination against Catholics for the Government to insist that if they wish to continue to work with local authorities, Catholic adoption agencies must act against the teaching of the Church and their own consciences by being obliged in law to provide such a service."
As Murphy-O'Connor points out, none of this reasoning is uniquely Catholic or requires specifically religious belief. That marriage is the relationship of a man and a woman isn't a truth created by any one religious traditionmarriage is a natural, universal institution whose nature religious leaders from across denominational and religious lines can affirm. That children do best with both a mother and a father isn't a matter of revealed teachingit's confirmed by the best of human experience and social science. (See also here.) All of this is confirmed when one considers that the Anglican bishops, along with the Muslim Council, backed the Church. For, as Murphy-O'Connor noted, "The deepest convictions of the Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Sikh faiths are that a child prospers in the care of a father and a mother."
And yet the Church isn't arguing that gay parents shouldn't be allowed to adopt, or even that the state shouldn't place children with gay couples. As Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett points out, the Church is merely asking for an exemptionan exemption allowing it the freedom to continue to place children; an exemption that wouldn't force it into the dilemma of either violating its own conscience or having to close its adoption programs.
In this case, the religious believers are clearly on the side of conscience and freedom, while secular liberals are promoting a state-imposed moralism that coerces everyone, at least everyone who desires to cooperate with the state for the common good. Thus, the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York, in solidarity with their Catholic brethren, wrote to Blair: "The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning."
They are entirely right, but, unless properly understood, their statement can be misleading. If committed homosexual relationships were true marriages, and if gay couples were equally suited to raise children, then the anti-discrimination legislation as applied to adoption would make sense. This is why Alan Johnson, the education secretary, was right when he said: "To me this is legislation to prevent discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and you cannot do that and at the same time allow discrimination in one area." If the Church's teaching about homosexuality and marriage is true, then the Church's claim to the rights of conscience is valid. But if it is false, then so, too, is its claim for exemptionthink back to the case of Bob Jones University and interracial dating.
Which is why we must be honest on this point: From the Church's perspective, it would not be unjust for the state to prohibit the adoption of children by gay parentsa child has a natural right to a mom and a dad. It's simply that in this case the government's view is on the other side of the issue. And so the best the Church can hope for is a compromise of live and let live.
But this compromise will not be madefor those on the side of gay rights, convinced of the truth of their argument, will not settle for it. Nor should they. The law doesn't really imagine that Catholic adoption agencies are somehow preventing gay and lesbian couples from adopting elsewhere. The proposed law is, instead, a device to rebuke the Church, to tell the Church that its teachings about homosexuality and marriage are false, a way for gay-rights activists to attack Christianity under the mantel of nondiscrimination.
This example from England shows that the debate over same-sex marriage affects much more than just who can get a marriage license. In a fascinating essay in the Weekly Standard, Maggie Gallagher warns of the coming political and legal train wreck. The stance that the government takes toward same-sex marriage will have implications not only for state marriage law but much elseincluding religious liberty. Legal moralists on the left won't have it any other way.
Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things.