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North Carolina: To Boycott Or Not

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to go back to an issue that's drawn international attention to North Carolina. It's a law that prevents cities from passing anything that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and prohibits such laws going forward. Some are calling it the bathroom law because it also requires people in government buildings and public schools to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender at birth.

This has provoked a fierce reaction from a number of high-profile businesses and entertainers, from PayPal to Bruce Springsteen, who've announced boycotts. But there have been other reactions, too, certainly from those who support the law and consider their stance a matter of conscience, too, and from those who oppose the law but feel that boycotting the state isolates people who most need the support. So we this would be a good time to talk about the ethics of the boycott movement.

We've called three different voices on this subject. Rev. Will Willimon is a professor of the practice of ministry at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. Steven Petrow is the civilities columnist at The Washington Post, and he lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. And the Rev. Alex McFarland is the director of the Center for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at North Greenville University in South Carolina. And I started our conversation by asking Rev. McFarland, who supports the North Carolina law, about why - about the reasons for his support.

ALEX MCFARLAND: This is an issue of natural law - that it's wrong to murder, it's wrong to lie, it's wrong to take your neighbor's wife. And also, natural law is the recognition that there are males and females. Now one of the things that's been really pummeled on the American people for the last three decades is a philosophy called egalitarianism, that there are no differences in the sexes. Natural law says look, there are some differences between male and female. In fact, states had laws against crimes against nature because there are certain things that are unnatural.

MARTIN: OK. You do not support boycotting North Carolina because you do support the current legal framework that was just adopted.

MCFARLAND: I do.

MARTIN: And the only question I would ask you before I go to our other guests is there were a lot of things that people have felt to be natural in times past that we now understand to be both scientifically false and morally wrong. For example, there was a point at which people thought the separation of the races was natural. We now understand, at least I hope we all understand, that that is scientifically false and morally wrong.

MCFARLAND: Of course.

MARTIN: Do you entertain the notion that perhaps your view of the science around gender might similarly be incorrect?

MCFARLAND: Well, I think males will always have XY chromosomes as long as the human race exists, so I don't look for distinctions between male and female to fall anytime soon, but...

MARTIN: ...Can you tell us a little bit more about where you are on the boycott? You oppose these companies that - and entertainers who say they are boycotting the state. You disagree with this. Tell me why.

MCFARLAND: Well, no, I actually like Bruce Springsteen, who I think was the first major entertainer. No, I applaud his ability, and I recognize the legality of his right to act on his deeply-held convictions, just like I support Jews and Christians who, for purposes of their deeply-held convictions, don't want to perform gay weddings or cater a gay wedding and give philosophical sanction to things that they find objectionable.

MARTIN: Let me give Rev. Willimon a chance to respond here.

WILL WILLIMON: I just - I think this is the most elaborate sort of reasoning to basically justify a completely uncalled for, unnecessary piece of legislation that appears to have no purpose other than to humiliate and make life more difficult to an extremely vulnerable group of our citizens.

MARTIN: Can I ask you to entertain the question, though, that Rev. McFarland posed, which is he said that he doesn't disagree with people exercising their consciences, but in his view the people who don't want to perform same-sex weddings and don't want to participate or support same-sex weddings in any way are equally acting on their conscience and should also be respected? And I just want to ask - could you entertain that question? Tell me, from your perspective, what - how do you respond to that?

WILLIMON: I think, you know, it's apples and oranges in the discussion. We have a law that many judge to be discriminatory. We've been told by our legislature they're not going to reconsider the law. They're not going to modify it. They're not going to tolerate any changes to it. OK, well, what do people do? And I'll just say I'm grateful that people are helping us with a discussion about the law. So it seems to me that, you know, boycotting is one means of applying some pressure.

MARTIN: Steven Petrow, you actually moderated a chat about this issue on the Post's site, and you heard from people on both sides of the debate. But if somebody came to you and said, should I go or should I not go, what would you say?

STEVEN PETROW: I think the question that everybody wants to ask themselves is if I come, how can I have an impact on what I'm trying to do here? You know, if I'm spending my dollars in this state, how do I find LGBT-friendly organizations? So I don't think, Michel, that there's one size fits all in terms of this question. I think there are many ways to the same place, and boycotting is one of them. Letter writing, petitioning and so on are others, and that they all should be utilized to put pressure on the legislature here in North Carolina and the governor.

MARTIN: Can I - Stephen, can I ask you to entertain Rev. McFarland's point, though, which is - his argument is that Bruce Springsteen is acting upon his conscience in declining to perform in North Carolina. How is that different from a person declining to offer services to same-sex couples?

PETROW: I will entertain that. And so what you have with Brice Springsteen is an entertainer who canceled a concert that cost him $2 million to do that out of his pocket. And with the laws in the state when it comes to those who are running businesses, they have the right to close their businesses if they don't want to accommodate everyone in the public, which is what the law says, and to incur that loss. So that would be the right apples to apples in that situation.

MARTIN: So, Rev. Willimon, if I can just clarify just for my own sake, what about those who argue that this hurts people in Charlotte, for example, who are trying to move in the opposite direction? Like the bookstore owner whose store and other independent booksellers have been an opportunity to hear different voices? What do you make of that argument, that it actually hurts the people who are trying?

WILLIMON: I do think there's collateral damage that's regrettable. I don't think it is near the economic damage that has been done by this law itself - just the thing it does to our economy, our people. So I think that's valuable.

MARTIN: I appreciate your point, thank you. Stephen Petrow, I'm going to give you the final word. What do you think should happen now?

PETROW: Well, I think Rev. Willimon spoke very eloquently to what needs to happen in the political sphere. But what I have seen in recent weeks and in years now about transgender people is that there's such a lack of understanding. You know, there's a statistic from GLAAD that says only 16 percent of Americans know a trans person. And I've often said to people, and I've said it to myself, too - when I don't understand something - and there's plenty that I don't understand. And I don't fully understand being transgender because I'm not, but that doesn't mean I can't embrace them as part of our larger family. So I think that's where we need to go next - talk more, listen more.

MARTIN: All right. Well, this is - we have to leave it there for now. So thank you all for being a part of this conversation. Rev. Alex McFarland directs the Center for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at North Greenville University. Rev. Will Willimon is a professor at Duke Divinity School. And Steven Petrow writes the civilities column at The Washington Post. Thank you all so much for speaking with us. It's an important conversation.

MCFARLAND: Thank you.

PETROW: Thanks, Michel.

WILLIMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.