A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Freedom of Religion-- Freedom to Discriminate?

One of the great difficulties in dealing with very emotional issues is that often more heat is generated than light; and that difficulty leads to a second difficulty-- the inability to interject nuance into an argument. And because people on both sides of an emotional issue are all worked up over something, anyone who attempts to sort through a difficult moral issue often please neither side and are called names by both sides. I am not suggesting for a moment that people should not hold deep convictions nor argue passionately for their views, but motivations of passion can get in the way of reasonable discussion with reasonable people who disagree with one another.

The recent flap over BS 1062 in Arizona, which has been referred to as the "anti-gay discrimination bill" is a case in point. Had the bill not been vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, it would have allowed businesses the right not to serve gay customers based on religious beliefs. I certainly think it was right for the governor to veto the bill as it would have allowed for discrimination in cases that I do not think can be justified. Having said that, however, one of the things that needs to happen in the midst of this debate is to have a serious and nuanced discussion on what constitutes illegal discrimination on religious grounds and on what grounds do religious organizations and/or individuals have a right to discriminate.

Now, I am well aware that with that last sentence there are those reading this who are thinking to themselves that there should be no such thing as legal religious discrimination, but such "discrimination" exists. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches and some Protestant denominations do not ordained women on religious and theological grounds. While I disagree with that view, I support those churches' right to do so. I do not want the state telling the Catholic Church they must ordained women. That's an internal matter for them to consider. I don't want the state nosing in on an issue that they are incompetent to resolve on religious and theological grounds (and yes, when it comes to religion, the state is indeed quite incompetent). At the same time, I do not believe a business owner, who is Catholic should be allowed to hire only men based on his own religious convictions about the place of women in authority. To keep the whole matter of religious freedom and tolerance from descending into the tyranny of the state, that by fiat becomes the arbiter of what should be religiously free on the one hand, or allowing gross religious discrimination by mere individual religious whim on the other, a distinction must be made between religiously affiliated organizations and individually owned institutions. This is the reason I disagree with Hobby Lobby's argument that they should not have to provide health care for its employees that include abortifacients (though I dislike such drugs) because it violates their religious beliefs. This is simply the cost of doing business in a pluralistic society. (Actually, America is not as much pluralistic as it is fragmented, but that's another post for another time.) At the same time, I have come out in support of the Catholic Church and its opposition to providing birth control to its employees (even though I disagree with the Catholic Church's position on birth control) who work for church-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and orphanages because church-affiliated organizations should be allowed the same "discriminatory latitude" as church's themselves. Otherwise, we end up defining freedom of religion as merely freedom to worship-- that churches are free to live according to their convictions only when it is within the walls of the church building, which is exactly what the current Department of Justice has argued. This is so ecclesiologically and missionally misguided, I continue to be baffled that my friends on the Christian left don't get how this undermines their cherished views on social justice and its integral connection to the gospel. Those of us who believe the gospel compels us into every area of life cannot accept such an argument.

At the same time, I don't understand how my Christian friends on the right, who support businesses failing to offer services to gay couples because of religious convictions don't seem to realize how selectively they employ those religious convictions. Should a Christian baker deny baking a wedding cake for a divorced couple? What about a couple getting married who are guilty of committing adultery? Should all potential customers be required to fill out a questionnaire in order to apply for a wedding cake from a Christian baker? Doesn't this seem to be a tad-bit absurd? All Christians, regardless of their religious, political, and social views fail when it comes to applying the whole of Scripture. We tend to focus on those passages that we like and ignore those that disturb us. Nevertheless, it's clearly not consistent for a private business owner to refuse to offer services for one perceived biblical violation and not for others.

Let's add to this complexity the additional problems as to what constitutes being forced into participation in something that is religiously reprehensible for a business owner. Two cases in point: a Colorado judge recently forced a bakery to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple after the owner refused to do so because same-sex marriage was against his religious convictions. One detail that needs to be mentioned is that he told the couple he would bake cakes for them for any other event, just not a wedding. We must not forget that in the church not all rituals are created equal. A wedding in the Catholic Church is a sacrament. A wedding anniversary celebration is not.

The second case involves a photographer who was told by the Supreme Court of New Mexico that she could not deny photographing a same-sex wedding even though she refused based on her belief that in so doing it would appear she endorsed same-sex marriage.

There are several issues here that need to be untangled. As with Hobby Lobby, should these individual businesses be allowed to discriminate based on their religious convictions or is tolerance the price of doing business in a pluralistic (a.k.a fragmented) society? Is there a boundary to be drawn in reference to the extent of participation in an event which one finds religiously repugnant? In other words, is it one thing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding where the baker does not have to participate and be present for the wedding, and a photographer who must be present at the ceremony and the reception?

To cite another example, a friend of mine had a father who became a professional photographer in retirement. On several occasions he was asked to take nude photographs of people. He refused on moral and religious grounds. Should he have been forced to photograph naked people, some of whom wanted to be photographed while involved in, shall we say, interesting acts? Where are the boundaries between respecting the religious convictions of those who offer goods and services and protecting people from organized discrimination? These are questions that defy simple solutions.

And then there is the whole matter of why anyone would even want to do business with a company that publicly rejects their lifestyle. Andrew Sullivan, who is gay, writes,
I would never want to coerce any fundamentalist to provide services for my wedding-- or anything else for that matter-- if it made them in any way uncomfortable. The idea of suing these businesses to force them to provide services they are clearly uncomfortable providing is anathema to me. I think it should be repellent to the gay rights movement as well.
Laws should not be made that systematically discriminate against any group of people, but at the same time, the American people have the freedom to let businesses know of their support or opposition to their views and business policies. How we walk this tightrope between tolerance in a society where people do not share the same convictions is not always a slam-dunk. Not allowing systematic legal discrimination, while respecting the freedom of religious institutions to discriminate based on their theological and social views (and as I said, we do allow for that) is not always easy to navigate. In some cases the answer is clear, but not always. And asking what Jesus would do is most of the time not very helpful. To ask whether or not Jesus would bake a wedding cake for a gay couple is as anachronistically absurd as asking if he would do a photo shoot for a nudist family reunion. I surely cannot be the only one who notices that every time someone asks the WWJD question, Jesus always ends up doing what the person asking the question thinks he would do-- Gee, surprise, surprise? These are difficult questions indeed, but let us stop manipulating Jesus making him the poster boy to serve our liberal or conservative agendas.

Of course, for me as a pastor the questions that occupy me front and center are not these, though they are important. I am more centrally focused on how the church I am privileged to serve as pastor can bear witness to the hospitable, reconciling, and transforming grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all persons.

I surely do not assume I have offered the definitive word on this matter. I would like to hear your thoughts. Vigorous and rigorous discussion on important issues is absolutely necessary. Please feel free to comment.


Tom Lester said...

Thought provoking. A pastor used to say, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." It is very difficult to be open but use discretion where appropriate. I suppose I can walk into stores with no shoes or shirts now. Thanks.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Please be serious if you are going to comment.

Anonymous said...

Why do you continue to feel that you are in a position to 'have the definitive' word on so many issues?

Allan R. Bevere said...


I didn't realize that I did. Indeed, I suggested otherwise at the end of my post.

Do you have thoughts to contribute to further the discussion, or are you just going to hide behind your anonymous rock and throw stones?

Be courageous-- identify yourself and join the discussion.

GaryLyn said...

I appreciate your desire and invitation for a nuanced dialogue about this issue. I, personally, would not have a problem offering my services to a gay couple for something like cakes, photography, etc. And as I try to put myself in the place of people who struggle with this decision, I would offer my services even if I was opposed to gay marriage or the gay lifestyle. And my decision to do so would be based on my Christian faith. For me, offering this service would not be a statement of approval of gay marriage. In fact, I would offer the service as a way of saying, while I disapprove of what you are doing, I am accepting of you as a person, as a child of God. It would a desire to give witness to what is most important for me as a Christian.