The UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law hosted a panel of speakers on Thursday as part of a series of conversations by the pro-LGBTQ group Tolerance Means. The panelists, called “dialogue catalysts,” gave their take on the series title—“Religion and Gay Rights: Do They Have to Be at Odds?”
“I’m afraid most of the breakdown is not hearing each other’s stories. We’ve got to have a dialogue and not make the perfect the enemy of the good, or even of the achievable,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a dialogue catalyst and law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.
Tolerance Means began in 2017 with an inaugural dialogue at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Since then, it has hosted events at the Idaho State House in Boise, Malone University in Ohio, and at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dialogues at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota and Loras College in Dubuque, Indiana, are on the docket for April.
The discussions are designed to “bring together students and thought leaders to find more constructive approaches to living together in a pluralistic society,” according to Tolerance Means’s website.
Put more simply: “It’s a millennial-driven conversation about the intersection between religion and faith and the LGBT community and their rights,” said Hannah Preston, a law and dialogue ambassador for Tolerance Means.
In addition to directing the organization, Wilson is often on the panel herself. One or more additional speakers join her, and a moderator is selected from the local community.
Wilson’s co-panelist on Thursday was William N. Eskridge Jr., a professor at Yale Law School.
The two were moderated by UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor of rhetoric, Christian O. Lundberg.
“We have a great opportunity to have an exchange of ideas and a dialogue in context where we can talk about some of the issues and questions about sexual identity, family and the intersection between the two in relation to policy,” Lundberg said.
Eskeridge opened the dialogue with a brief history of the national same-sex marriage debate and “how the issues relate directly to North Carolina.” He touched on the pitfalls of HB 2 and the “bad odors of North Carolina’s public discrimination.”
Eskeridge posed some rhetorical questions that the legislature and others ought to consider in relation to HB 2: What is covered and who is covered by the state antidiscrimination law? How broadly isis the law defined? Should sexual orientation be added as a classification for which discrimination is prohibited?
“Is there a better way for North Carolina to accommodate religion and other basic concerns and antidiscrimination laws without seeming like a haven for discrimination?” Eskeridge asked.
He referenced the stories of many same-sex couples he has gotten to know through his work as an attorney emphasized the necessity of accepting these people in society and religious institutions.
“Here is the reality: however red you are or however blue you are, there are probably hundreds of thousands same-sex unions and marriages in the U.S.,” he said. “To be brutally frank with you, these are not publicity stunts, these are not exercises in political correctness. These weddings are expressions of mutual commitment.”
Wilson painted a picture of what she says is the current state of being LGBTQ in America—and it wasn’t a pretty one. There are still some states that do not have a laws banning LGBTQ discrimination, including North Carolina.
“I want to put some flesh on this,” Wilson said. “Some of us afterward are going to dinner at Acme [in Carrboro]. And at Acme, as in any place in this state, you could say to two gay folks or a trans person, ‘Get the hell out.’ And that’s legal. I personally think that’s wrong.”
Wilson pointed out on a map states that “got it right” by extending the marriage rights by statute or voter initiative. “In that process, they could speak to issues that were affected around marriage like the tax exemption of church ordinances,” she said. Those states, she said, were able to circumvent these problems by writing exemptions that dealt with such conflicts.
The states that “got it wrong,” including North Carolina, are now trying to navigate these questions and are not granting rights to the LGBTQ community because they’re convinced those rights will come at the expense of the faith community, Wilson said.
In addition to these events, Tolerance Means also hosts a scholarship competition at each host school. The organization invites students to submit five-hundred-word essays detailing what tolerance means to them and how their experiences “could help forge a better society, summarized in a closing hashtag #ToleranceMeans that crystallizes their idea.” The two students with the best essays each win a $750 scholarship.
“They’re meant to be a public forum for discussion to bring together students and faculty and the society of the school, and bringing them together in a place where they can have a discussion. The catalysts are open to competition from the audience, people asking questions and really digging into the material,” Preston said.