The writers of “Saturday Night Live” couldn’t have sketched out the parade of self-parody Republicans choreographed Monday in the Minnesota Senate chambers.
Reciting their catchphrase of the day—“deeply held beliefs”—Republican after Republican argued that because they believe so strongly, so sincerely, that homosexuality is wrong, they aren’t bigots but merely misunderstood, conscientious objectors. Inevitably, this was going to be their fallback position.
Advocates for marriage equality spent the past two years dissecting, like surgeons, every hypocritical warning, sky-is-falling fear mongering and easy-baked science drummed up to keep gays and lesbians from legally marrying in Minnesota. Republican legislators paid a big price last November for attempting to seal discrimination into the state constitution. Of course, when they spoke of “unintended consequences” before Monday’s history-making vote, they somehow overlooked the fact they’re responsible for putting same-sex marriage on the legislative agenda.
Despite all the post-election come-to-jesus retreats, promises of “lessons learned” and talk of returning to a focus on economic issues, Republicans still in office are clinging to rhetorical tropes dating to Anita Bryant’s crusades—with this comical twist: Legalizing same-sex marriage would infringe upon the rights of people who object to it.
The Republicans brave (or clueless) enough to speak Monday brought up theoretical wedding florists and photographers, cake decorators, public school teachers and city administrators who would be forced, by this law, to go against their “deeply held beliefs” and serve gay and lesbian couples. Sen. Paul Gazelka of Nisswa went so far as to offer an amendment that would shield any individual business or employee from legal fallout for honoring their “deeply held, sincere beliefs” by turning away gays and lesbians. I suppose a half-century of federal civil and human rights law, which makes such discrimination illegal, matters little when you don’t consider gay and lesbian people—or, more accurately, their social and sexual lives—worthy of protection. Sen. Scott Dibble, in his measured response, called Gazelka’s proposal “breathtaking.”
Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester criticized the bill for not exempting publicly funded entities that provide adoption, foster care or social services from the ability to discriminate on the basis “religious freedom.” “We must respect religious freedom at the same time that we advance rights,” said Nelson, one of many Republicans who have never demonstrated interest in advancing the rights of gay and lesbian couples.
Sen. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake, by way of Foot in Mouth, stole the show for cartoonish bromides. He played the slippery-slope, “where does it end?” card and called marriage between one man and one woman “a tradition our state has recognized since creation.” He held up Minnesota’s legislative action, in 1997, to define marriage as if divinely produced, and inferred the current legislature doesn’t have the moral standing to undo their work.
Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville became the poster elder for irony. He posed this: “Children need a father and a mother: Which one would you not have wanted?” Moments later, he answered his own question, divulging that his mother raised four children despite an alcoholic husband who she divorced when Hall was 6 and that his stepfather was also a drunk. “I tried not to be home when he was around,” added Hall, who went on to say, “many of my relatives were addicts, criminals, two sent to prison, more than one child molester.”
I’ve never heard such damning testimony against same-sex marriage.
Some people suggest that only the extremists among Republican state senators took turns at the microphone Monday, yet of the 37 legislators who voted for House Bill HF1054, 36 are Democrats. These Republicans either voted their “deeply held beliefs” or to protect their “deeply held seats” in the legislature. Both motives are craven and contemptible.
You could have dropped almost every one of these speeches into the 20th century debates that desegregated schools and opened other opportunities for black Americans and not been able to tell the difference. Today, Republicans wield “religious freedom” as a shield against accusations of bigotry, and there’s nothing sincere about it. Let’s put it this way: If the religious leaders these people most admire suddenly came out in support of same-sex marriage, these Republicans wouldn’t change their beliefs—they would simply believe their leaders had lost their way.
The only deeply held beliefs these legislators share are the world around them is changing and the march of progress and justice is leaving them behind.