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"Immorality" and Social Change

by Professor Will Huhn on April 7, 2012

in Constitutional Law,Equal Protection,Wilson Huhn

Social conservatives sincerely believe that they are defending "morality" when they condemn practices such as  birth control, women working outside the home, and same-sex marriage. Their view is that these practices are "immoral" because they threaten the fabric of society. They consider people who condone these social transformations to be fostering "immorality."

They are mistaken. They view change itself as threatening. They forget that society often changes for the better – that human progress is possible – and that if given the opportunity to pursue their hopes and dreams people can often make this a better world.

The habit of social conservatives to think that they are defending "morality" is evident in the hysteria that arose over the subject of same-sex marriage. According to some conservative leaders, Satan is walking the land because some people of the same gender love each so much they are willing to promise to be faithful to each other and to share everything they have. What blindness! Committed gay and lesbian couples actually contribute to the strength of our families, our communities, and our society. Anyone can see that! So why all the uproar over what should be a relatively peaceful transition to a new level of acceptance?

Opposition to same-sex marriage is simply stated and easy to understand. Same-sex marriage, says its opponents, "threatens the institution of marriage." Some opponents even claim that it is not possible to speak of "same-sex marriage" – that the phrase itself is a contradiction in terms, a physical and moral impossibility.

The opposition to same-sex marriage is not grounded in logic or reality. It is based simply on tradition. Cultural and religious traditions condemn loving relationships between persons of the same gender, so according to social conservatives the practice of same-sex marriage is "immoral."

Those who approve of same-sex marriage and other changes to society such as the responsible use of birth control or the liberation of women from gender-based roles do not consider themselves to be fostering "immorality." They do not perceive themselves to be on the side of Satan or contradicting basic norms of what is good and right. They simply have a different way of telling right from wrong.

For example, liberals believe that whatever our cultural and religious traditions have been, people should not be treated differently unless they really are different. In accordance with this principle our society eventually came to the realization that racial discrimination is wrong. We learned that gender discrimination is wrong. And now we are figuring out that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong. We now know – and social science studies prove – that gay and lesbian couples love each other just as much and are just as good at raising children as heterosexual couples. There is no earthly reason to treat same-sex couples differently – and therefore it is wrong to treat them differently.

This same dynamic is at work on the Supreme Court of the United States. Some justices are beholden to "tradition" in their interpretation of the Constitution. They maintain that if a group of persons has been historically discriminated against, that alone is reason enough for the law to continue to treat them differently. Other justices define equality more broadly and more realistically. They adhere to the principle that "persons who are similarly situated must be treated alike," and that principle has been repeatedly invoked to protect groups such as blacks, women, and the disabled from laws that enforced and reinforced traditional stereotypes.

If you, dear reader, are a social conservative, I urge you to pause the next time you are tempted to condemn me or another liberal for fostering "immorality." Please consider the possibility that I may see myself in a different light, that I may have a different way of telling right from wrong, and that what you regard as "immoral" I regard simply as a step forward.