July 28, 2011

What ‘civil liberties’ are we defending, anyway?

By Andrew Haines *

A few weeks back, I wrote a post describing how “marriage equality” isn’t really about ensuring “equal rights.”

Now, a recent piece at CFMPL’s Ethika Politika blog highlights the ambiguous language that surrounds matters of “civil liberties.” And this particularly as it relates to gender-specific dorm situations on college campuses.

In his guest post, Chris Wolfe — a Ph.D student in politics at Claremont Graduate University — points out a number of flaws with the position of organizations like the ACLU and others in their attempts to defend near-limitless boundaries for college student living.

The recent debate over CUA’s single-sex housing policy is the newest episode in the ACLU’s attack on what they call “gender identity.” The case with CUA (mixed-sex dorms) is actually mild compared to what the ACLU has been pushing for in other colleges across the country: mixed-sex dorm rooms.

As bizarre as that sounds, this logical conclusion of their civil liberty argument is being pushed for in many schools, including the undergraduate colleges in Claremont.

Wolfe relates some points from a correspondence between him and the student head of the ACLU at Claremont. His main contention against the ACLU position follows:

What civil liberties is the ACLU defending exactly? Fair and equal treatment of each woman and man certainly is a civil liberty we should fight for, but that is not what is at stake with gender separate housing. Whenever the word “separate” is used, people assume some kind of unfair discrimination. The word “separate” recalls the famous 1954 desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court rightly overruled the racist “separate but equal doctrine” that prevented blacks from attending local public schools. However, separate dorm rooms for women and men say nothing about either gender’s superiority.

“Superiority” is not “difference,” however. And, as Wolfe rightly notes:

Differences between citizens are recognized all the time by the government; without them, we could not have a progressive income tax, for example. Recognizing differences is only a violation of civil liberties when citizens are mistreated on the basis of indelible characteristics such as race, as blacks were back in the 1950s. Blacks required the status of a “protected class” to prevent the unfair discrimination of segregation.

On the other hand, the same-gender housing situation at CUA — and many other Catholic colleges — doesn’t warrant such a move as to “protect” students from unjust segregation. Wolfe concludes:

People who don’t believe in “biological sex or gender identity” can always attend some other private college. For colleges to delve into the minds of its students and protect every imaginable opinion would be impossible and contradictory. That is why the premise of the ACLU’s “civil liberty” argument is absurd.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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