Tuesday, March 04, 2003

An ugly battle over gay rights. It's barely registered on the media radar screen in Boston -- I learned about it via a squib in this morning's Globe -- but New Hampshire is in the midst of a huge political battle over gay rights. The state's new Republican governor, Craig Benson, has nominated to the Human Rights Commission a reactionary former state legislator who has made hostility to lesbians and gay men a cornerstone of his public persona.

This is a double tragedy, not just because of the specific ugliness of the situation, but because as recently as the late 1990s it seemed that New Hampshire was, at long last, leaving behind its dubious past -- a legacy that includes being the last state in the country to approve a holiday celebrating the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday (see timeline that accompanies this article).

The current controversy involves a former Republican state representative named Gary Daniels, who in 1997 was a vocal opponent of a law banning discrimination against gays and lesbians -- the very law Benson now wants him to help enforce. Here's what Daniels reportedly said at the time, according to an editorial opposing his nomination in last Wednesday's Concord Monitor: "In the case of race, color or creed, you don't have any control over that, and those are constitutional." To complete the so-called thought, here's what he said last week: "Sexual discrimination is not a constitutional right, and that is really the big difference."

As the Monitor observes, "Former state representative Gary Daniels leaves no one in doubt about where he stands on the issue of civil rights for gays and lesbians. The Milford Republican doesn't believe they exist."

A perusal of the statewide Manchester Union Leader's website this morning did not turn up any editorials on the Daniels nomination. However, the paper ran a story yesterday reporting that Daniels believes his views have been misrepresented. "I don't think anybody should be discriminated against, and I don't feel that I discriminated against anybody. This debate was about policy, not people," Daniels was quoted as saying. "I don't believe in discrimination. I opposed the bill because I thought the discrimination statutes were sufficient."

Yet the Union Leader dug up a transcript of Daniels's remarks from 1997 that leaves little doubt as to what his views are. Here's what Daniels said about the civil-rights bill, HB421, which became law despite his "no" vote:

This bill seeks to raise the protection of homosexual and bisexual behavior to the same constitutional level as race, color, creed, age and sex, characteristics over which we have no control. Simply put, it seeks to disrupt the natural order of things.

If we are truly to fix the problems that we profess that we are here to resolve, we need to start looking at the actions we take and their impact upon the problems yet to be resolved. The new set of ideas proposed by HB421 creates a new set of problems, disruptions that I don't believe are acceptable or wanted in today's society.

Misrepresented? I don't think so.

What was Governor Benson thinking? Who knows? But this much is sure. One of the unfortunate facts of life of the modern Republican Party is that its leaders must occasionally placate its most retrograde elements. In Trent Lott's case, it was Mississippi's irredentist racists. In Benson's case, it is reactionary moralists.

In this morning's New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof has an insightful column on the utter contempt that the mainstream media show toward evangelical and born-again Christians -- a group that comprises nearly half the country.

Trouble is, the tolerance that Kristof urges, while laudable, will never be returned. For liberals, tolerance and acceptance are paramount values that should be extended to religious conservatives just as they are to other groups. For religious conservatives, though, tolerance is the enemy.

Ultimately there is no reconciliation possible. What Kristof argues for is respect rather than the "sneering tone" that many secular people show toward evangelicals. That's fine. In New Hampshire, the executive council should reject the Daniels nomination forthwith, as reports suggest it already has the votes to do.

Respectfully, of course.

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