Political calculus, moral dilemma – or both?

Oct. 19, 2013 @ 12:06 PM

The intersection of personal belief and public duty is often complicated – something we see playing out right now in North Carolina with Attorney General Roy Cooper and the state’s recently enacted constitutional ban on gay marriage.

There’s more at play in this drama, of course, than just a person’s struggle with obligation to conscience or obligation to professional expectations he or she has agreed and pledged to meet. Cooper is clearly contemplating a run for the Democratic nomination to compete against incumbent Pat McCrory for the governorship in 2016. He is widely seen as a potentially strong candidate.

The gay marriage issue is a litmus test for many voters – on both sides of the issue. And while the political dynamics statewide should seem clear-cut – witness the overwhelming adoption of Amendment One, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, last year.

But the landscape is shifting rapidly as acceptance of diverse sexual orientations becomes more and more widespread and as the support for gay rights, including the right to marry, broadens. Even some ardent proponents of Amendment One mused last year that it would be repealed within a generation.

But politics aside, what’s a public official to do when personal beliefs run counter to what’s required in the job?  Cooper has an obligation as the state’s top legal officer to defend the laws of the state against court challenges – something Republican critics have vigorously doubted Cooper could do, given his own beliefs.

Cooper last week made it clear he intended to fully defend the legal challenges to Amendment One – and that his personal views are no barrier. 

My first impulse was to applaud Cooper – he was elected to do a job, and he’s going to do it despite his personal opposition to the laws he is asked to defend.

But then a colleague suggested another way to look at this.  What about a public official who, in the days of the Jim Crow south, had misgivings about legal segregation. Would we have saluted them for nonetheless defending the apartheid laws that state legislatures passed and state courts – and until the 1950s, the Supreme Court – upheld?

Edmund Burke is often quoted as saying (although it’s possible that he did not) “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Burkean or not, it can, of course, be used to defend either side in an ideological dispute,

I find it unacceptable when a pharmacist, for example, refuses to dispense legal, safe contraceptives to women because of his or her moral rejection of abortion.  Many in the right-to-life movement would argue that to do otherwise is to do nothing and allow evil to triumph.

If one believes, as I do, that intolerance for and legal discrimination against gays is essentially evil, is the attorney general’s acquiescence in defending a constitutional amendment that is purely intolerant and discriminatory doing nothing?

As the blog TalkingPoliticsjomc noted, there’s precedent for opting out of the court defense – then-attorney general Jerry Brown in California declined to defend that state’s constitutional gay-marriage ban in 2010.

As the blogger pointed out, the politics of California are decidedly different than North Carolina’s.

It’s possible to view Cooper’s moves – his firmest support yet of gay marriage combined with a pledge to defend its prohibition from a court challenge – as finely tuned political calculus.

Nonetheless, it does point up a public official’s dilemma in a time of bitterly divisive culture wars.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.