There are gray areas everywhere. Circumstances when it is hard to know exactly what to do or say. Places where a thing is allowed or encouraged, or taboo. Or illegal. Times when an opinion on one activity is approved and supported, and an identical opinion on a nearly identical activity is scorned.
Lawyers are good at gray areas. The sharpest lawyer I know (and whom I get to live with!) tells law school stories about rising to argue one side of an argument, and the professor ordering her to then argue the other. Because there are far more than two sides to every argument. This particular lawyer pointed out to me that while I don’t agree that a bakery in Indiana can properly refuse to make cakes for a gay wedding, I would probably agree that a Jewish haberdasher would not be judged for turning down a Nazi contract for t-shirts. Singer Charlie Daniels had a hit that went: “Be proud you’re a rebel ‘cause the South’s gonna do it again.” Would you buy it if it went: “Be proud you’re a Nazi ‘cause the Krauts gonna do it again.”
I think there are some things that go too far, see above. I would travel to Indiana to buy a simple shirt – for this simple man – from the Jewish haberdasher to support his cause against the Nazis. But I hear there are folks contributing to a fund to support the anti-gay bakers. Am I better than they?
Experienced Biblical scholars, or just better readers than I, have knocked me for taking Scripture out of context. They cite passages that allegedly define marriage as between a man and a woman as the foundation of so-called defense of marriage laws. Others go so far as to claim that a step down the slippery gay-marriage slope will lead to weddings between men and cars, or women and trees. I cite back with a few lines out of Levitticus that prohibit consumption of shellfish (I’m going to Hell), trimming beards (Purgatory) and tattooing of skin (I’m good here, if only because my lawyer strongly advised against such body art.)
Some of us (read: me) join a police force in the hope that the gray areas can be distilled to a simple line that we can tell – or force – people not to cross. The Law. “It’s against the law” seems an easy departure point. Over there, over the line, you are a bad person and I get to arrest you. Over here, you are good. Our communities sometimes move that line on us. What was illegal is now legal. Marijuana laws are changed or dropped. Speed limits are raised. Parking restrictions change. Sometimes it appears that regular folks are unaware of just what some laws are. Protesters, pundits and the press which amplifies their shouts seemed surprised when, in their view, people are thumped for minor crimes. Let’s ignore for the moment the notion that cops thump people for breaking the law. Cops use force to overcome resistance to what should have been minor, inconsequential arrests. Cops aren’t the punishing arm of society, society is, in the form of established courts and often elected prosecutors, upholding laws developed, approved and enacted by established and elected government. Do cops sometimes cross the line and inflict harm? I wish I could say no, but that would be untrue. Is that the system? No, but cops are human and lines are broad, and sometimes gray. But I, again, digress.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is widely considered to confer freedom of speech, religion, assembly and the press to the people. It does, actually, prevent the government from infringing on these things, which is not exactly the same. You don’t have the right to say or write anything you want at any time, as civil slander and libel laws attest. You can’t shout, “Fire” in a crowded theatre because that becomes conduct, and conduct can be governed by government. Cops protect protesters who say bad things about cops, but generally prevent them from saying them in the middle of interstate highways. Speech vs. conduct. But we are free to express opinions on almost any topic with support from, and generally without interference from, the government. The 18th-century French satirical polemicist (read: blogger) Voltaire once wrote “…I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” (This is commonly misquoted as “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” but these are the words of Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.)
So I get to say anything I want, as long as I am able to back it up, or defend myself against a punch in the nose from those who disagree. That’s what’s great about being a grown-up. So here goes…
It is wrong to refuse to sell cake to gays. It is not wrong to refuse to sell hate t-shirts to Nazis.
PS: Inquiring minds may want to know, but it’s too early to review the murder charges placed this week against an officer who shot a man after a traffic stop and foot pursuit. The videotapes released to the New York Times are troubling. Maybe next week I can write something about it. But put it this way: I recently proffered my services to a local TV news organization as a law enforcement analyst, hoping they would use me to help the public understand police videos or events about which the news talkers had no clue. Today, with a South Carolina video that’s hard to look at, I’m glad they turned me down.
PPS: I quoted Maya Angelou in my last column, but not until I checked the quote three times, and still found two different interpretations. Does that mean I can get a job at the U.S. Postal Service? Probably not.