John McIntyre

Mr. Justice Alito worries about people being called out as bigots

In his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Samuel Alito worried about the effects of the ruling on people who are opposed to same-sex marriage.

"I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers and schools," he wrote. "By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas."

The risk of being labeled a bigot is a very real one, as we can see by examining some traditional ideas that are today perceived as bigotry.

The idea that black people are an inferior race, the basis for Christian apologetics for slavery in the United States, had a long run. (And for the sake of historical accuracy, let us stipulate that white supremacy was not a belief restricted to the states of the Confederacy.) It is an idea that was enshrined in law, preached from pulpits, and unthinkingly upheld by generations as a social and cultural norm.


Today belief in white supremacy is far from dead, as recent events in Charleston, South Carolina, illustrate, but it has become embarrassing. It is a bigoted belief, and, like the racial slurs that express it, it is no longer fit for polite society but must be restricted to private conversations and the darker sectors of the Internet. In the open, to express a racist opinion, today one must first say, "I'm not a racist, but. …"

Anti-Semitism is another traditional idea that has fallen into disrepute. It too was proclaimed from pulpits and enshrined in the statute books. Like racism, it had its ugly outbursts (lynchings for one, pogroms for the other) but also a more genteel manifestation: restricted neighborhoods and clubs, college quotas, coded talk about international bankers.


The Holocaust, however, has made public anti-Semitism taboo. If you disparage Jews as a class of people, people will call you a bigot, and they will be right.

It remains, as Mr. Justice Alioto frets, a possibility that homophobia, even when cloaked in religious doctrine, will come to be seen as bigotry. I think it is a real possibility, the more so as gay people come to be seen as human beings rather than categories.

In the bad times, homosexuality had to be covert. People could lose their jobs, even go to jail, for being identified as homosexual. But over the past half century of comings-out, public sentiment has begun to shift, notably on gay marriage, as people began to see that they knew gay people who were members of their families, colleagues, and respected public figures. Knowing individual gay people makes it harder to see them as imps of Satan.

Yesterday, I posted on Facebook a photo Jack Evans, 85, and George Harris, 82. After fifty-four years together, they became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Dallas County, Texas. I defy anyone to look at the photos of those two elderly men, finally able to achieve public recognition of a relationship of more than half a century, much of it when they would have been subjected to opprobrium, and tell me that their marriage is a danger to the Republic or an affront to God.

And if your opposition to same-sex marriage rises from your Christian beliefs, you might do well to reflect that the people whom Jesus treated as categories, the scribes and the Pharisees, were people who preened publicly on their religiosity while scorning others. The people he refused to treat as categories were the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, minority groups, the disreputable. Instead he recognized them as fellow human beings, approaching them with compassion.

You don't get to determine whether you will be called a bigot. History will.