Why the “Religious Freedom” Bills Are Bad for Christians (Part II)

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.




Stay up-to-date on Skye's posts, new books, speaking engagements and more.

14 Comments

  • April 20, 2016

    Perry

    According to one of the prominent LGBT activists the goal is not to get marriage extended to the LGBT community.. but to redefine the family and destroy marriage altogether.
    In the video below Gessen states
    “Gay marriage is a lie.”
    “Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we’re going to do with marriage when we get there.”
    “It’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist.” (This statement is met with very loud applause.)
    She also talks about redefining the traditional family. This may be important to her because she has “three children with five parents”:
    “I don’t see why they (her children) shouldn’t have five parents legally. I don’t see why we should choose two of those parents and make them a sanctioned couple.”

    You can hear it in her own words here.
    This is the entire clip.. The most interesting part starts about 6 minutes in.
    https://youtu.be/n9M0xcs2Vw4

  • April 21, 2016

    Ryan

    Great thoughts Skye – thanks for adding your voice to the conversation and for approaching it in such a measured, reasoned, way. We need more of this!

    I have one question for clarification and a few thoughts. As a disclaimer, I freely admit that I might just be too dense to see the difference in what I’m about to ask – but here goes:

    Would a Christian baker take offense at the idea that the photographer would be “creating art in violation of their conscience if they take photos of a ceremony” but they (the baker) is not? I guess I’m not sure what the difference between the two service providers actually is. If, as you said, “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,” how would a photographer get an exemption from having to take photos for a same-sex couple that she would take of an opposite sex couple?

    I understand the helpful distinction you’ve made in clarifying that a baker would not be obligated by law to use butter cream to write an endorsement of same-sex marriage on a cake itself, but I know many a baker who would be a bit insulted at the idea that they are anything other than artists and the cake is their creation – many would see themselves to be no different than a photographer. Perhaps you are saying that a baker should argue that he or she has a case under a freedom of expression clause, but I didn’t necessarily see you making that argument for the baker.

    I think one of the unexpected outcomes of the more recent (and positive) trend in the church of honoring vocation, encouraging every Christian to consider “calling” in some sense, etc. is that many a baker don’t view themselves as merely bakers – they view themselves as participants in the sacred act of marriage. In this light, just as they wouldn’t stand as maid of honor or best man in the wedding, they don’t want to celebrate via baking.

    For whatever reason, many Christians view the redefinition of marriage as a different type of thing than matters we would all consider un-Biblical. I believe they would argue that having unmarried people stay in a Christian owned hotel room is nothing like participating in the marriage ceremony. Your Hindu wedding example, however, is a different deal and is a good comparison. In all honesty, I don’t know that a Christian should be forced to make a cake for that event if it runs contrary to conscience. I suppose we could say it is their immaturity that has made their conscience so finicky, but that is tenuous ground to stand on – Paul told believers they were free to eat meat but that they shouldn’t if it ran contrary to conscience. To force them to do something contrary to conscience is a bit dicey – and perhaps dangerous ground to stand on! I’d rather tell them to find a new business.

    Whether we have mistaught it or not, many Christians see their work as a calling – particularly those who have risked everything to venture out and start a small business. I think their heads are spinning these days as we tell them “all you are doing is rendering a service, nothing more.” This cuts to the heart of why the did what they did in the first place!

    I had a friend exclaim the other day that “it’s just a cake, make the dumb cake!” As I see it, the problem is that many Christian business owners have found great fulfillment in the idea that just the opposite is true – a cake is never just a cake…it’s an expression of calling and, therefore, something sacred to them.

  • April 21, 2016

    admin

    Ryan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful questions. You are correct that baking a cake is also a creative act, but there are at least two differences between the baker and photographer:

    1. Unlike the photographer, the baker does not have to attend or participate in the wedding ceremony to provide a cake.

    2. Baking/decorating a cake is a creative act, but it isn’t necessarily an act of speech. Imagine a wedding cake decorated with flowers. One could not look at the cake and detect any communication from it’s baker. A rainbow cake with two grooms and the words, “Gay Marriage is Great!” however, now communicates a message the baker may not wish to make.

    The act of photographing an LGBT wedding is different. The photographs themselves are composed to communicate an affirmation of a same sex union. An image of two women kissing at the altar communicates in a way that a plain frosted cake does not.

    It’s the difference between a Jewish-owned hardware store selling a skinhead paint and plywood for him to create his own neo-Nazi sign, and a Jewish sign store owner being forced by the government to create a neo-Nazi sign for the skinhead.

    -Skye

    • April 21, 2016

      Ray

      Our government agrees, as of April 18, 2016, Religious Liberty is officially the problem.
      Read this press release from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
      http://www.usccr.gov/press/2016/PR_Statement_LGBTDiscrimination.pdf

    • April 21, 2016

      Ryan

      I get it… For the record, if I were baker, I’d make the cake!

      On point 2 – just because someone couldn’t look at a cake and detect communication from it’s baker doesn’t necessarily mean that the baker doesn’t see him/herself communicating via a fondant flower. Right?

      I’m not sure the last analogy you named is enough of a synonym for the situation. The Jewish-owned hardware store selling paint and plywood would be more like a Christian grocery store selling flour and sugar, not a baker selling a cake that was created for no other reason than to celebrate a marriage. I think the baker would say that they are more like the Jewish sign store owner than the hardware store owner and I think they’d have a point.

      Maybe I’d say it like this: The fact that something is being created, not merely sold, makes a difference. If I were selling the tools for someone else to create, I’m not really working on the creation in any real sense and therefore sit in a position of neutrality in regards to the creation. But to engage in the work itself, the creation of value, makes this situation more than just a transaction.

      Perhaps my analogy would be that a party store owner should be obligated by law to sell streamers to anyone for whatever purpose, but a professional decorator shouldn’t be forced to offer decorating services for an event they object to morally. Even if they don’t have to attend the event, they are working in order to make the event a reality, and are, therefore, participating in a meaningful way.

      • May 7, 2016

        Candy

        That sounds like much more fun than any Mormon pageant I have ever heard of. Way to go, Corrine; The Gentile City!(The semicolon hurts my head, but I do apcerpiate attempts at humor.)

  • April 22, 2016

    Ralph

    …”not born in the U.S.A.”… Good one Mr. Jethani!

    I appreciate your level headed thoughts.

  • […] Why the “Religious Freedom” Bills Are Bad for Christians (Part II) […]

  • April 22, 2016

    Ray

    But..it does pass the golden rule test.. As a person created male by God.. I don’t want them to let me in the women’s restrooms or locker/changing rooms where I have absolutely no business being. That’s treating them the same way I want to be treated.

    Matthew 7:12 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    12 “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

  • April 22, 2016

    Kevin

    As always well thought out and said Skye.
    I will admit that I have called Bruce Springsteen and Disney and others hypocrites, not for the reason you state though. I did because of their refusal to “proceed” in those states for their reasons and yet they willingly work with and cater to many other parts of the world that have far greater levels of inhumanity directed at the LGBT, my question was why these states and not China, Iran, Saudia Arabia etc.

  • […] Why the “Religious Freedom” Bills Are Bad for Christians (Part II) […]

  • May 3, 2016

    Jake

    Skye,

    Thank you for your thinking and perspective on this issue. I agree with your thoughtful approach and grounding in the “Golden Rule” and agree with most everything you say. I am curious about your perspective related to the Elane Photography case in New Mexico. In your post you assert – “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.”

    I agree with this statement, but as demonstrated in the Elane Photography case, the State may not. If I’m understanding this case properly (and I allow that I many not be), this is the exact defense that Elane Photography used and the court found that First Amendment rights were not violated. Quoting the decision, freedom of speech was not violated – “because the NMHRA (New Mexico Human Rights Act) does not compel Elane Photography to either speak a government mandated message or to publish the speech of another.”

    The decision does go on to note that the owners of the photography studio would be allowed to put disclaimers on their web site that they do not condone same-sex relationships, but that they must abide by state and local laws. In other words, the studio’s freedom of speech (strictly speaking) is protected, but under public accommodations guidelines they still must photograph the wedding. Therefore, I am not certain that existing legal protections would be enough to enforce what you’ve written –

    “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.”

    To be fair, this is a state decision in New Mexico. It has been appealed to the SCOTUS, but they have not agreed to hear the case (to my knowledge). My suggestion is not that this is evidence for the necessity of religious liberty laws, at least not as currently written. However, if Christians are expecting protection of speech in the manner that you specify, it might not be allowed under existing public accommodations laws (in municipalities that include sexual orientation as a protected class).

    Any additional insights you can add are appreciated.

    • May 4, 2016

      admin

      Jake,

      Yes, I am familiar with the New Mexico photographer case and followed it closely because it was rooted in a free speech argument rather than religious liberty. Obviously I strongly disagree with the court’s ruling, and I was very disappointed when the SCOTUS did not agree to hear the appeal. However, I think this is precisely the sort of issue the Supreme Court will have to address sooner or later. My guess is the justices wanted the matter of same-sex marriage settled before they started hearing cases of this nature. In other words, let’s establish whether or not there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage and then worry about how that right intersects with other constitutional rights (speech and religious freedom being the two most obvious).

      I agree that there is a real threat to both free speech and religion because of the new definition of marriage affirmed by the courts. However, as stated in my post, I think it is wiser for Christians, both legally and politically, to appeal to free speech as the NM photographer did rather than religious liberty. The latter says, “I shouldn’t have to participate in a gay wedding because I am a Christian,” which opens religious believers to accusations of bigotry and hate, while the former says, “The government shouldn’t make me participate in any religious ceremony because I am an American.”

      -Skye

      • May 4, 2016

        Jake

        Thanks Skye. I’m guessing SCOTUS will eventually hear this case or one like it as well. Thank you for being a voice of reason!