The difficulty with the religious liberty bills being debated, and in some cases passed, by red state legislatures is that they are attempting to address a legitimate problem. Whenever rapid change occurs, the law often struggles to keep pace and tensions arise. Consider the recent showdown in the courts between Apple and the FBI over privacy rights and security. Existing laws did not anticipate a world of smartphones and digital encryption. Similarly, existing religious liberty laws did not anticipate a society that affirms same-sex marriage.
There is a very real need to further define and protect the liberties of religious Americans, like me, who maintain a one woman/one man conviction about marriage. I am particularly concerned about the freedom of Christian schools and universities to define themselves within academic and social sectors hostile to orthodox Christians view of sexuality. I appreciate the attempts of attorneys, legislators, and governors to strengthen religious liberty for all Americans, but the bills passed in Mississippi and North Carolina were not the right answer. As I stated in Part 1, there are some good provisions in these laws—including an attempt to clarify the property rights of religious organizations. Taken together, however, I believe the current bills are bad for Christians. These are not the solutions we are looking for. Here’s my second reason…
Reason Two: Current efforts to protect the religious liberty of Christian business owners do not pass the Golden Rule test.
Many conservative Christians have come to believe that business owners should have the right to deny products or services to those they disagree with based on religious convictions. They say a baker should not be forced to create a cake for a gay wedding, and a hotel operator should not have to provide a room for a same-sex couple. The weakness of this argument becomes obvious the moment we change the business owner’s identity. Would Christians tolerate a Jewish business refusing to serve a patron wearing a cross? Would we accept a Muslim-operated hotel not providing rooms to an evangelical youth group? Would we affirm an atheist’s right to not sell carpeting to a church or synagogue? Would we want everyone to have the same right we are seeking for ourselves? This is the Golden Rule test.
Christians cannot insist upon the right to deny service to those they disagree with and not expect the same treatment in return. Consider the chaos and complexity of a public square in which every citizen had to check whether each store, restaurant, or hotel serviced their particular group. This is precisely why our country has passed laws prohibiting businesses “from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation.” These non-discrimination policies, which were strongly advocated for by Christians decades ago, are the public policy manifestation of the Golden Rule. They call upon business owners to treat patrons as they would wish to be treated. Not only are such laws good for minorities, society, and profitability, they are also good for Christians.
The “Religious Liberty” laws currently being advocated would exempt religious business owners from prosecution for discrimination and exclude LGBTs from protections that other Americans enjoy in the public square. That represents a terrible step backward to the era of segregation. It is not how I would want to be treated, and therefore not how we should treat our LGBT neighbors.
Let me address three related concerns. First, in response to the laws passed in North Carolina and Mississippi, many corporations and artists have boycotted the states. On social media some Christians have cited this as proof of liberal hypocrisy. Why can Disney or Bruce Springsteen refuse to do business in a state that violates their political convictions, but a Christian business owner cannot chose whom to serve based on his religious convictions?
The difference is that Disney and Springsteen are not discriminating against a particular group of people. They are refusing to do business with everyone in the state. If Disney boycotted only Asians, or women, or Christians from their parks, they would be breaking the law. And if Bruce Springsteen prevented anyone not born in the U.S.A. from his concerts, he could be prosecuted in court. Likewise, if a Christian baker doesn’t want to sell cakes in Kansas, no problem.
Second, my call for Christian businesses to embrace the Golden Rule does not mean they must accommodate or provide anything a customer requests. This is where Christians need a better understanding of another First Amendment protection—our freedom of expression. The government cannot and should not require anyone to create, produce, or say anything that violates their conscience or religious beliefs. Ever.
Consider the in/famous Colorado cake maker case. The judge ruled that the Christian baker had violated the law by refusing to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. He had discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation. However, the judge said the baker’s freedom of speech rights were not violated because the cake he was asked to make did not include text supporting gay marriage. In other words, the ruling did not say he had to make whatever cake a customer requested. If a customer asks for a rainbow cake with two grooms and icing that says “Hooray For Gay Marriage,” a baker retains every legal right to say, “No, I don’t make that kind of cake.”
This is a matter of free speech, not religious liberty.
The court simply ruled that the baker could not refuse to make and sell a cake to a same-sex couple that he would make and sell to an opposite sex couple. Or, put more simply, the baker may discriminate when it comes to what kind of cakes he makes, but may not discriminate when it comes to who may buy them. A number of cases involving Christian wedding photographers, florists, and others should be framed as freedom of expression issues rather than religious liberty violations. Framing everything as a violation of religious liberty pits Christians against LGBTs—a popular culture war pairing. But far more Americans understand the universal importance of freedom of speech, and appealing to this First Amendment right could bring more unity than division.
Everyone, Christian and non-Christian, can agree that the government should not require a Jewish singer to attend a Christian wedding and sing “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” The government should not require a Muslim florist to attend a Hindu wedding and create flower arrangements around an idol of Ganesh. And the government should not require a Christian photographer to attend a same-sex wedding and force her to create portraits of the event. I do not believe the government should tell any citizen that they have to attend or participate in any ceremony contrary to their religious beliefs or create any art that violates their conscience.
Third, requiring a Christian business owner to serve LGBT neighbors is not the same as forcing a Christian to endorse same-sex marriage. If we cannot distinguish between serving our neighbors and affirming our neighbors’ beliefs or behaviors, than virtually any Christian participation in society must be viewed as a violation of God’s law.
If serving = endorsing, should Christian bakers stop making cakes for Hindu weddings that include idol worship? Should Christian-owned hotels refuse rooms to unmarried heterosexual couples? Who is acceptable to receive our service? Where do we draw the line? This guilt-by-association view would require a pharisaical separation to avoid any possible participation with ungodliness. Clearly that is not what Jesus intends for his followers.
Jesus’ refusal to separate himself from the unrighteous is precisely what troubled the Pharisees about him. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked his disciples with contempt. Jesus loved, served, and healed multitudes—including his enemies. Jesus’ example makes it clear that serving ≠ endorsing.
The deeper question we must ask is not whether Christians should serve their LGBT neighbors in the public square, but why are so many Christians eager to secure the legal right not to? Are Christians upset because nondiscrimination laws are preventing us from following the teachings of Jesus, or because they won’t allow us to behave like Pharisees?
Stay tuned for Part 3.
Read Part I here.