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Thought Police Go Too Far

Gay male couple holding hands with a wooden cross
AP / CBS
This article was written by By G. Tracy Mehan III.
It is not without irony that Robert J. Smith, a Catholic citizen of Maryland — the Catholic colony of the original 13 — has been punished by that state's Republican governor for exercising his right to freedom of speech and religion.

Robert Smith, a Maryland gubernatorial appointee to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board, appeared regularly as a panelist on a local cable talk show. As the Washington Post reported, during a recent show the topic of homosexuality and federalism came up, and Smith at one point said, "That's fine, that's fine. But that doesn't mean that government should proffer a special place of entitlement within the laws of the United States for persons of sexual deviancy."

Later, Smith acknowledged the comment and reiterated it.

Homosexual behavior [emphasis added], in my view, is deviant," he said. "I'm a Roman Catholic." Smith said he made these comments as part of a discussion on a proposed ban on same-sex marriage. "The comments I make in public outside of my [Metro board job] I'm entitled to make." Moreover, Smith stated that his personal beliefs "have absolutely nothing to do with running trains and buses and have not affected my actions or decisions on this board.

The reaction to these politically incorrect opinions was swift and certain. Jim Graham, another board member representing Washington, D.C., and "an openly gay elected official," issued a prepared statement after a WMATA meeting calling for Smith to disavow his remarks, apologize, or for the governor to remove him. Shortly thereafter, Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich fired Smith.

The governor issued a statement that "Robert Smith's comments were highly inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable. They are in direct conflict to my administration's commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance, and opportunity."

Speaking about the governor's action, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a recent dropout from the Democratic gubernatorial primary, opined that "Smith's hateful and mean-spirited comments suggest that he is unfit to serve the public, and his immediate removal is wholly justified." Graham was quick to compliment the governor: "The governor appreciated the seriousness of this problem." And Dan Tangherlini, Metro's interim general manager, sent an e-mail to his 10,000 employees "to reaffirm to all … employees that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated."

The use of the word "discrimination" here is an abuse of language, conjuring up an image of homosexuals having to ride in the back of the Metro bus, or facing the risk of losing their jobs because of Smith's opinions about their behavior — an absurd suggestion.

It is true, of course, that political appointees serve at the pleasure of whoever appoints them. Moreover, their political patrons do not relish appointees who freelance on a broad range of political issues, especially controversial ones, which might make things difficult for their administration, especially during a challenging election year. This is the case for Governor Ehrlich, a moderate Republican running for reelection in one of the most Democratic states in the Union.

While one might hope that the governor would have defended Smith's constitutional rights, he could at least have attempted to secure a discrete resignation from Smith, or even summarily fired him, as was his prerogative, for reasons left unspecified. Rather, he used it as an opportunity to pontificate on the subject of "inclusiveness, tolerance, and opportunity," effectively equating traditional moral, ethical, and religious principles, pertaining to a subject with profound consequences for the well-being of the family and the body politic, with bigotry, intolerance, and oppression.

Governor Ehrlich's decision was perplexing as well. Chris Crain, executive editor of the Washington Blade ("The nation's oldest gay and lesbian newspaper"), said that the governor's action "comes as something of a surprise because Ehrlich has a very checkered record on gay issues, most recently having backed an amendment to the state's constitution that would ban gays from marrying."

Interestingly, Crain pinpoints the crux of the matter: Smith wasn't fired for opposing gay marriage, of course, since we know Ehrlich does as well. He was fired because he allowed his own orthodox Catholic beliefs to define as 'deviant' a class of citizens who are supposed to be protected from discrimination under the laws of Maryland, the District, and of the written policy of the Metro transit system itself.

While the misuse of the word "discrimination" to characterize Smith's personal judgment as to the morality of homosexual behavior is Orwellian and dishonest, Crain is exactly right that Smith was fired for daring to allow "his own orthodox Catholic beliefs" to form his judgment of homosexual behavior. Crain and Governor Ehrlich essentially convict Smith of thought crimes against a new orthodoxy.

The Smith episode illustrates that moral and ethical judgments critical of homosexual behavior — judgments firmly expressed in Catholic teaching for 2,000 years, with antecedents in the Old Testament and roots in classical natural law philosophy — have now been banished from the public square in Maryland by a Republican governor.

Joseph Bottum, the editor of First Things, warns that the Smith firing is "an early warning."

"Unless things change in ways now quite unforeseeable, it will not be very long before the principle of traditional Western morality that homosexual conduct is immoral will be contrary to the public policy of the United States," Bottum wrote.

Webster's II New College Dictionary defines "deviant" as "Differing from a norm or from accepted moral or societal standards." The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes homosexual behavior as "intrinsically disordered" — a more nuanced, careful phrase. Still, had Robert Smith used this latter formulation, it would have been greeted with as much disdain from Governor Ehrlich, Graham, and other bien-pensant people as did the former.

Smith was expressing a personal opinion, specifically grounded in his beliefs as a Roman Catholic. Moreover, he did not suggest or endorse any steps to limit the rights of homosexuals. He was expressing a view that is held by millions of his fellow citizens across the land.

In Maryland the issue has been joined between traditional morality and moral relativism, between freedom of speech and religion and oppressive, overweening thought control. Governor Ehrlich has made his choice evident in the cashiering of Robert Smith.

By G. Tracy Mehan III
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online