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Duck Dynasty and our tolerant struggle

I wish the A&E television network hadn’t suspended Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson for his comments on gays.

Not that I agree with Robertson about homosexuality – or what he thinks the Bible ultimately tells us about it.

But does he have to agree with me?

A&E pulled Robertson from filming of the hit reality show this week after news broke of a GQ interview in which the shaggy-bearded star called homosexuality a sin and noted its biblical link to several sins, including bestiality.

If you’re among the 14 million regular watchers of the hit show, you know that Robertson has always been upfront about his faith. But bestiality references are not the kind of upfront a TV network with advertisers tends to like, so A&E promptly distanced itself from Robertson’s comments and put him on indefinite “hiatus.”

The backlash was just as quick. Fans and conservatives took to social media to bemoan political correctness and attacks on freedom of speech. Sarah Palin dutifully posted on Facebook about “intolerants hatin’ ” (yes, she also types without g’s). It was good political theater. But Palin and Co. also sort of have a point.

That point, however, is not about free speech. Freedom of speech is freedom from government interference. It’s not freedom from consequences of that speech. Robertson has the right to say most anything he’d like about homosexuality, but A&E, like any employer, has the right to decide those comments aren’t good for business.

Of course, there might be consequences to come for A&E, too. The rest of the Duck Dynasty family might take their golden egg and go home, or if backlash against the suspension gets too fierce, those same advertisers A&E feared might flee, anyway. Also, A&E’s statement on Robertson was a curious lifting of the curtain. By noting that their star’s comments were his “personal views” and “not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty,” A&E acknowledged that fans aren’t really getting “reality” in their reality show. Just A&E’s sanitized version of reality.

The point critics sort of have is this: If Robertson can be branded intolerant for expressing his faith’s beliefs, hasn’t intolerance become just a label to be wielded against those with whom you disagree?

With homosexuality, it’s an especially complicated question. The uneasiness about comments like Phil Robertson’s is about more than political correctness. It’s about living in a country in which discrimination against gays is still up for legislative debate, a country in which homosexuals are still attacked and killed. Should we allow for a public figure – even just a reality TV star – to give implicit affirmation to those who think discrimination or violence is OK?

But Robertson clearly was saying something different. When asked what is sinful, he says, “Start with homosexual behavior and morph out from there.” But he also said: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell ... We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus.”

ESPN faced a similar issue this year when NBA analyst Chris Broussard, in response to a question about the coming out of basketball player Jason Collins, said he believed homosexuality was a sin. Broussard, like Robertson, didn’t say homosexuals were evil or undeserving of kindness.

There were calls for Broussard to be suspended or fired, but ESPN did neither. The network disagreed with Broussard in a statement, then stood aside and let everyone have their say. Why has that become so difficult to do?

It’s not irrelevant that 45 percent of America agrees with Robertson and Broussard on homosexuality. It’s also not irrelevant that the number is declining. Culture and laws are becoming more accepting of gays, and in time we will look on comments like Phil Robertson’s as relics. Our conversation about homosexuality is bumping toward a conclusion – the right conclusion. But it’s not a conversation when only one side gets to say what it believes.

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