What do you do when two groups' civil rights come into direct conflict?
Three of the front-running Republican presidential candidates (Bachmann, Romney and Cain) say that religious rights trump gay rights when the government is giving out our tax dollars. And a fourth, Texas Governor Perry, almost certainly would have said the same thing if he'd been able to stay for the debate (he had to return to Texas because of the wildfires).
This shows a stunning misunderstanding of the United States Constitution and the very meaning of civil rights.
The question they were responding to was about gay couples adopting children. Many of the adoption agencies in this country are run by Christian churches, particularly the Catholic Church. And these same agencies get a lot of funding from the federal government. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that Catholic adoption agencies don't want to let same-sex couples adopt children. The Catholic Church claims it violates their right to religious freedom.
Many Americans don't realize that outside of employment and housing, it's perfectly legal for an ordinary citizen to discriminate against anyone for any reason. If I were a racist, it would be perfectly legal for me to bar people of color from my home. If I were an evangelical Christian, I'd be entirely within my rights to shun atheists. If I hated jugglers, I could order my kids to stay away from the circus!
It's a simple fact that the Catholic Church (or any church for that matter) does have a right to discriminate. If they don't like gays, too bad for the gays.
But ... when they take my taxpayer dollars, they are no longer a group of ordinary citizens. By taking my taxpayer dollars, they become an agent of the United States of America, bound to follow the same rules as the government itself.
There is no conflict between religious rights and gay rights. If the Catholic Church wants to use its own money to run adoption clinics, they can discriminate against anyone they like: gays, Irishmen or even jugglers. It's their constitutional right. And once they do take our taxes, it becomes their constitutional duty to serve all citizens without regard to race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
They don't have to take our taxpayer dollars. But once they do, they can't whine about the burdens that come with it.
If one of these four leading Republican candidates manages to become President of the United States, they'll have to swear to defend our Constitution. It's pretty scary that their understanding of its meaning is so deeply flawed.