This case has attracted an incredible amount of national attention and sparked intense debate. On one side, proponents of religious liberty believe that forcing a business owner to conduct business that violates his or her religious convictions is a violation of the first amendment. Proponents of civil rights believe that allowing business owners to refuse to serve LGBTQ persons is legalizing discrimination.
There are many different sublayers and issues in this case, but I want to focus on one in particular. One of the more controversial aspects of this case have to do with the way it is being compared with a civil rights case from 1968, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, in which Maurice Bessinger was sued when he, citing religious convictions, refusing to serve black people in his restaurant. In that particular case, the court ruled against Bessinger, in effect stating that his religious liberty did not give him the right to engage in racial discrimination in his place of business.
This comparison has been criticized both by conservative Christians as well as by some members of the Black community who believe this is an inappropriate comparison resulting from cultural appropriation. Some black LGBTQ folks, however, find the comparison appropriate and useful. This is not a new debate; comparisons between LGBT civil rights and racial civil rights have been made and criticized for decades.
Because I am neither a member of the Black nor the LGBTQ community, I am not qualified to comment on the inherent appropriateness of that comparison. I do recognize that both communities have historically been horribly oppressed and mistreated by the majority culture in a myriad of ways. I certainly don’t want to be yet another straight, white male telling anyone from either community how they ought to feel.
I am, however, a Christian leader who cares deeply about both religious liberty and civil rights. It is from that vantage point that I now offer my own insights into this case. I am by no means an attorney nor an expert in the law, these are simply insights based on my own observations and logical deductions.
1. Almost nobody believes in complete and total religious liberty. As an extreme example, almost nobody believes that anyone should be able to engage in child sacrifice, even if doing so is a sincerely held religious belief. I said “almost” because inevitably there are a few extremists who believe there should be no legal restrictions on religious whatsoever. My point is, reasonable people believe that some reasonable restrictions on religious liberty are at least acceptable, if not imperative. In other words, we may disagree on where that line is drawn, but we agree that it’s ok to have a line.
2. Morality and legality, though sometimes overlapping, are not synonymous. That’s important because there are some people who, even though they believe discrimination based on race, sexuality, or other factors is highly immoral, don’t believe it should be illegal. Their opinion is based on the belief that a truly free market would take care of the problem on its own through competition. For example, a bakery that refused to serve certain clientele would be put out of business by a baker who agreed to serve everyone. I think this is a flawed philosophy, but that’s a debate for another time.
3. This, I believe, is the crux of the issue. From the standpoint of religious liberty alone, your opinion on racially-based discrimination should be same as your opinion on sexuality-based discrimination. In other words, if you believe it should be illegal for a baker to refuse to bake a cake for an interracial marriage, even if that refusal is based on religious convictions, then, to be consistent, you should also believe it should be illegal for a baker to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage, and vice versa.
But Thomas, didn’t you just say you didn’t want to weigh in on the appropriateness of the comparison between those two groups?
Yes. What I said, was that I’m not qualified to comment on the inherent appropriateness of that comparison. My comparison in point three above, however, is not in regard to the inherent nature of either group, but rather it is in regard to whether or not it is permissible to discriminate against any group on the basis of religious conviction.
The fact is, some people sincerely believe their religion forbids interracial marriages. Other people sincerely believe their religion forbids same-sex marriages. Both beliefs are sincerely held. Here is why this matters: If I believe that the government should prohibit discrimination for one but not the other, I am suggesting that the government should privilege or endorse one religious belief over another. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems this would be a direct violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment as well as an egregious attack on religious liberty as a whole. To state it another way, if I only want the government to protect my religious liberty, I don’t actually want religious liberty at all. In order for religious liberty to be religious liberty, it must be consistently applied all religions, regardless of whether or not we agree with the actual beliefs themselves. When it comes to religious liberty, we can’t have our cake and eat it too.