Should Christians who by reason of belief and conscience discriminate against same sex couples be held liable under non-discrimination laws or should there be an exception made in order to uphold their First Amendment religious liberty rights?
Though none of the occupations (I added the butcher for obvious literary reasons) are mentioned in the recent spate of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts passed or proposed in several states, the matter is being driven by a few cases across the country involving Christian businesses and gay couples.
Without citing case law and plunging deep into history and details of the RFRAs, Bob Allen, News Director of Baptist News Global, gives a succinct summary of the matter:
Passed by Congress in 1993, RFRA prevents the government from placing a substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion unless it is for a compelling reason and by the least burdensome means.
The law has been in the news in recent weeks, as states including Indiana and Arkansas considered state versions with language added to apply similar protection to disputes between individuals rather than only cases involving the state.
Supporters of those efforts say business owners like bakers or florists who believe homosexuality is morally wrong should not be forced to participate in same-sex weddings against their conscience. Opponents say such legislation gives businesses a license to discriminate against customers because of their sexual orientation
I am aware that the writer is among our Moderate Baptist friends. I’d quote Baptist Press but I cannot find a quick quote that adequately expresses the opposing sides.
Some of us might dispute some of the terminology in Allen’s article, particularly the phrase “license to discriminate” but I think he accurately reports the conflicting narratives. We clamor for religious liberty. They clamor against giving businesses a license to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Both sides might agree that those supporting RFRAs have been issued a shellacking lately. What might have been yesterday an easy victory for traditional family values is today not just a defeat but quick and decisive defeat.
Here are some considerations:
1. Public opinion has shifted. Gay marriage is widely accepted in the country and overwhelming accepted among certain demographic segments. The most recent poll showed that most Americans do not believe that businesses should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. And, by a wide margin, citizens of our country support allowing gay couples to marry. Of course no one has to like or accept polling results. While a poll doesn’t determine what is right or wrong, it does offer some explanation of why public reaction against RFRAs has been so successful.
2. The social agenda of conservative religious groups has been and is on life support. Nothing new here. The sisyphean reality is that we labor mightily only to get repeatedly flattened. When RFRA bills were filed in my state legislature (two years running) they were met by a broad coalition of social and religious opponents. Although heavily Republican, lawmakers in Georgia understand political power and recognize where it is absent or declining. Southern Baptists don’t put the fear of God or of voters in our politicians any more. Perhaps our energy might be better spent on winning souls.
3. Conservative religious bodies like the SBC are declining. We don’t have the influence or do we swing the votes like we used to. One example is the series of local referenda held here a few years ago on Sunday sales of alcohol. Against the loud opposition of The Georgia Baptist Convention leaders, lobbyists, and many pastors, the measure passed all over the state. Voters in large cities, surburban bedroom communities, and rural country crossroads all agreed that citizens of Georgia should be able to buy alcohol on Sundays if they wish. The Baptists might be officially against alcohol (or gambling) but such opposition no longer translates into political power.
4. Our practice of preaching sermons with the theme of “Take Back America”, “America You’re Too Young To Die”, and “God will judge America” is tired, worn out, and manifestly fruitless. Particularly hubristic is the latter assertion which presumes on God’s prerogatives and assumes that God will act decisively and openly on the sin that some among us rank highest on our scale of abhorrence.
5. Our individual actions in regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals are unhealthy and demonstrably counterproductive. I feel sure some of the brethren are still using the old “Adam and Steve” laugh line which, along with other similar, has always been useful in expressing disdain and disgust. Dispite a few more measured voices in the SBC, contempt for homosexuals among us is palpable. Some here have called for the state to re-criminalize and punish for gay activity, for example.
6. On a denominational level, we have not had much serious focus on religious liberty issues.
7. We have lost the public relations battle on RFRAs partly because of the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision which allowed some “closely held” corporations, businesses rather than individuals, to exercise religious liberty rights. Some RFRAs proposed after that decision have included expanded definitions which opponents point to as permitting discrimination by businesses against LGBT individuals. We have argued that such is not the case but our arguments have been overwhelmed by opponents. Their narrative is easily the winner.
8. The whole RFRA business is virtually impenetrable to most people, including those who tend to support our positions on this. There may be a way forward but it will not be more of the same.
9. I suspect that we are headed for more judicial activity on the issue. The ERLC’s Russell Moore, among others, is saying that there should be some accommodation and protection for a business whose activity is creative and artistic, a personal expression, e.g., a baker of a wedding cake or a taker of wedding photographs. So far as I am aware, there is no judicial definition or specification for this. I’d speculate that these arguments will eventually be addressed.
I rather like the statement of Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
To our LGBT friends: with the astonishingly rapid-dawning first opportunity to marry in our country’s 225 year history, try extending some grace to others who have religiously informed objections to same-sex marriage; and if the baker or florist does not want to provide you a cake or flowers, move down the street and give your business to ones who will. To our conservative Christian friends: with religious liberty protected in this country like no other place in the world, try loving your LGBT neighbors (not even talking about your enemies) unconditionally, and understand that providing them goods and services in the marketplace is an act of hospitality, but it does not indicate approval of their nuptial decisions or their sexual orientation. It seems to me this is a better way for good citizens and good Christians to resolve conflict in the public square.
It is possible that Russell Moore would have lunch with Brent Walker and the two of them could find areas on which to join forces?