Several media accounts indicate that Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch may play a pivotal role in the trio of LGBTQ employment discrimination cases that were argued on Tuesday.
Gorsuch sent mixed signals during the arguments. At one point, he referred to the employment issue as a “really close” call. But he also fretted that a ruling upholding LGBTQ rights might unleash “massive social upheaval.”
Gorsuch’s use of that phrase should concern us. It’s often used by the far-right as a bromide to block any form of progress. It works like this: A proposal is made to extend rights to members of Group A. To this, people with the privilege of already enjoying those rights howl, “We can’t do that! It will spark massive social upheaval!”
There are at least three things wrong with the argument:
It’s demonstrably untrue: As you are reading these words, 21 states, the District of Columbia and numerous counties and cities already have laws on the books protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment. (In addition, roughly two million full-time federal employees have had these same protections for years.) Massive social upheaval has not destroyed these places. In fact, by demonstrating their welcoming, open and tolerant attitude, many of the communities with LGBTQ-friendly policies have attracted good, high-paying jobs and are considered highly desirable places to live. Ensuring that LGBTQ people nationwide have the same equal protections simply makes good sense.
The right-wing always says that: The “massive social upheaval” bogeyman is pressed into service every time members of a marginalized group seek equality. We heard it from racists who fought civil rights in the Jim Crow South. We heard it from chauvinists during the women’s rights movement. We heard it from religious fundamentalists during the gay rights movement. Most recently, we heard it before and after the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality in 2015. Remember what the Religious Right said about that decision? The country was supposed to have collapsed by now!
Threats of disruption don’t justify taking away the rights of others: People have certain inherent natural rights. These rights are not yanked away, ignored or subjugated because another faction vows to throw a fit. If the fear of sparking “massive social upheaval” were all it took to nullify basic freedoms, we’d never move forward.
Now, it is true that when we seek to expand rights in America, there's always a pushback. And on some occasions, violence does erupt, such as during the civil rights era. But we do it anyway – because it is the right thing to do. The proper answer to people who refuse to accept the rights of others and who employ violence in an attempt to deny those rights is to use the legal and law enforcement systems to make them stop. We don’t give in to extremists because they’re threatening to go out and riot.
To be sure, if the Supreme Court stands on the right side of history in these cases, there will be plenty of grumbling from Christian nationalists. That’s to be expected. These forces have opposed virtually every advance in human rights since the founding of the country. We must continue moving forward, unfazed by baseless fears of social upheaval, massive or otherwise.
Photo: Americans United staffers rally in front of members of Westboro Baptist Church outside the U.S. Supreme Court.