On Tuesday the Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving a Pennsylvania school district’s bathroom policy for transgender students. This debate presents us with a very difficult problem: how do we respect the self-identity of a biological male who believes him/herself to be female at the same time acknowledging that biological females are not comfortable undressing in the presence of biological males?
The court has chosen to let this debate unfold in the political arena for a while longer, which is wise. Many people think the Roe v. Wade decision was premature and simply put off the inevitable public debate we are still embroiled in 45 years later. Perhaps we can do better on the transgender controversy if we allow the full scope of considerations and arguments to come forward among the citizenry before racing to the courts.
The bathroom and locker room problems are only the most visible of transgender issues. We are also seeing more and more cases in which biological females are losing their ability to compete in sports because biological males who identify as female are allowed to compete in women’s events. Will this trend negate the whole intent of Title IX?
While complex, both the bathroom and sports issues are pretty concrete and understandable. A third issue is more subtle: the increasing establishment of public school programs that advocate for the normalization of transgender identity in our society, sometimes teaching this to grades as early as kindergarten and without parental consent. Transgender advocates insist that anything short of viewing gender identity as fact is not only wrong but bigoted. The same is true for presenting positive views of gay marriage. Disagreement is assumed to be intolerance. LGBTQ advocates do not believe that you can be respectful and accepting of gay marriage or transgenderism if you disagree with the basic premises.
Yet the First Amendment tells us exactly how we can accomplish this (how wise they were!) The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
If we think of religion more broadly than just a specific religious sect, we can see that this really refers to our worldview or belief system. Atheists have a worldview just as surely as Catholics do, but there are no Atheist churches. The “establishment clause” means that the government cannot make anyone attend, participate in, or financially support a church or religious/philosophical organization of any sort: Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, etc. The “free exercise clause” means you can’t be prevented from attending the church or organization of your choice and building your life around that groups’ core beliefs.
The “establishment clause” specifically restricts governments, but the idea applies to individuals and informal groups in a general sense as well. As Americans we have long believed that we have the right to be respected by our peers, but not the right to require them to agree with our beliefs or participate in our religion or lifestyles. For a lot of parents today, the LGBTQ curriculum advocacy in public schools is a kind of establishment that discriminates against their beliefs and labels them as bigots if they object.
The capacity to refrain from “establishing” our own ideas and beliefs as the “truth” that everyone else must conform to, while simultaneously “freely exercising” our religion or the behavior consistent with our worldview, is harder than it looks. But it is the bedrock of America and our success. It is the necessary competence required in a free society to work though hard issues such as abortion and transgenderism. And it is a capacity that I fear we are losing, because we are teaching our children entitlement, victimhood, and righteous judgment, not the true tolerance that comes with mutual respect and restraint. Both LGBTQ advocates and those who believe that sex is binary need to be heard without prejudice.