Students will distinguish between acceptance and tolerance and learn to respect the right people have to make the choices they wish as long as those choices are within the bounds of the law.
Have your students read the Backgrounder on Same-Sex Marriage in the Law Connection.
Promoting tolerance as an appropriate behaviour is an important educational objective. Students should be guided to form opinions that are pro-social and compliant with the law. A suggested outline of an introductory class discussion follows.
The debate about whether or not the law ought to recognize same-sex marriages raises some interesting questions that senior high school students should be considering as they form their own opinions on this and other essentially moral/legal dilemmas. Some of these questions may also be within the means of younger students to deal with in relation to other issues that may confront them.
What we have at the foundation of the debate about same-sex marriage is the intersection of colliding moral values. On the one hand people argue that the purpose of marriage in our society is essentially to procreate and provide a suitable home environment for the rearing of children who will become productive and happy members of society. Others argue that marriage is the union of two people who love one another and want to secure a safe and satisfying partnership in which to live their private lives. In our society the best way to do that is to live within the established legal framework that guarantees equal and fair treatment from the law and by those who have the authority to make decisions relating to our lives. Marriage brings with it a number of rights and social benefits that unmarried people do not currently enjoy. Same-sex partners are asking the courts and the government to grant them the right to share in those benefits.
This presents a problem for some people and it is important to take apart the moral questions to understand where the law has a role to play. Moral values present difficulties because they vary between individuals. The law is constant and by its nature ought to apply equally to everyone. While laws often find their source in moral values – “Thou shalt not kill” becomes “It is unlawful to intentionally cause harm to another or cause their death,” – the first is a universal, some would say religious moral value, the second is a law governing the actions of individuals. Few of us would argue that this particular moral value should not also be set out in the law.
Sometimes the law has no inherent moral value at its base. “Drivers of vehicles must stop at red lights.” The law in this instance is designed merely to regulate and control traffic; it is important that everyone using the roads obey this law even though it has no intrinsic moral component. It is often important for us to learn to separate the law from the moral values that we espouse. We may hold a moral value that the law does not recognize and will not endorse or enforce, but also be willing to abide by laws that do not coincide with out moral beliefs. That does not mean that we must believe that the law is right, but that regardless of our personal feelings about the law we are obligated to obey it or be ready to accept the legalized consequence for refusal to comply.
It has been determined by this country and become embodied in the Canadian Constitution that all people must be treated equally or without discrimination by the governments of the land regardless of their “race, national, or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” That is a given – that is the law. The courts are bound to apply that law in any dispute that arises between a citizen and the government. The courts have also decided that sexual orientation is to be included as one of those grounds of prohibited discrimination. The reality is that if a law offers one group a privilege that is not offered to another group because of their sexual orientation then the deprivation of that benefit is discrimination and an infringement of that group’s legal rights.
Some people are uncomfortable with the notion that they are required to ‘accept’ a concept or behaviour of this type because it is alien to their personal beliefs. The requirement of the law is that we must ‘tolerate’ rather than accept.
You may want to define for your students the appropriate attitudes or responses.
Acceptance: a concept, principle or value that you believe in, would embrace or practice and allow others to freely do the same.
Tolerance: a concept, principle or practice that you may or may not accept, but you recognize the legal right of another person to believe or practice.
Ask students what distinguishes the two kinds of responses to an issue. Acceptance means you condone the behaviour and respect the person. Tolerance is respecting the person’s right to do what they do but not necessarily condoning that behaviour. We don’t have to tolerate or accept things that are illegal. We must tolerate behaviour that is legal even if we personally regard it as immoral.
Acceptance implies a belief in the concept or practice. A person who accepts may be more inclined to embrace a particular belief or practice it. Tolerance means that we acknowledge the right of another person to believe or act as they do when it is within the limits of the law. The law does not make the practice right; it simply makes it lawful.
Draw on the board a venn diagram comprised of two interlocking circles and label the diagram as follows:
Point out to students that while morals and rules often overlap, there are times when they don’t. Some moral values may not be enforced by the law, and some rules don’t have a moral component but we are still required to obey them. We are entitled to hold opinions about the morals outside of the intersecting area, but we are not entitled to act on opinions that we hold on matters that fit into the other areas of the diagram. Using some of the examples illustrated in the following chart have students suggest how each can be categorized and what attitudinal response is appropriate.
Activity Belief/Moral Value Rule/Law Restrictions Attitude/Response
Have students reflect on the selected activity and decide whether or not it involves a personal or social moral value, a rule or law, and whether there are any legal restrictions from participation in that activity (eg. age, gender, disability). Then ask what behavioural options they have in regard to that activity (eg. to reject, accept or tolerate).
Tolerance, which is all the Supreme Court has mandated in the decisions they have made on a number of controversial moral issues including issues related to same-sex relationships, means that we are required to respect the right people have to make the choices they wish as long as they are within the bounds of the law. The Supreme Court has gone further to rule that tolerance is more than just putting up with a person who believes or does something we find morally repugnant. We must not do anything to them or to those associated with them to make them feel threatened, unsafe or even unwelcome in our community. They must be treated with equality and fairness and granted the same rights and privileges that is every citizen’s entitlement.