Thoughts on religious exemptions to discrimination

Arizona’s legislature passed a bill that allows Christians to discriminate against gay people (particularly when it comes to gay weddings). Of course, the bill doesn’t explicitly say that, but there’s no question what the bill is actually about. Christians want to be able to deny goods and services to gay people, and this law was designed to give them legal protection to do so.

Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, albeit for different reasons than I would have, but this specific legislation and legislation like it has support from the Christian Right, and it is certainly possible that refined legislation could be proposed that would avoid some of the “unintended and negative consequences” cited.

I think this is terrible, harmful legislation, and I think it’s fueled by sloppy Christian theology. Some random thoughts, which by definition, are in no particular order.

I worked my way through college and graduate school refinishing antique furniture. My primary client was a gay man. At the time, I was firmly convinced that homosexual practice was wrong under all circumstances, but I never once thought of denying services to him. That’s bad business, and I would have gone out of business had I done so.

In fact, I never asked for any personal information from my clients, and it never factored into my decision to take or not take a project.

I do not understand why some Christians believe that providing a service to an individual constitutes support of that individual’s behavior.

What would happen if all Christians everywhere stopped providing all of their goods and services to gay people? Should Christian grocery store owners be allowed to deny food to gay people and families? Should emergency room doctors be allowed to deny emergency services to gay people? This legislation is sparked by florists and bakers, but there are bigger implications here – and not just for businesses, but for gay people who would suffer as a result.

Christians who deny services to gay people but do not deny services to heterosexual divorced couples (who are divorced for reasons other than those covered by Paul) or couples who were sexually active before marriage are hypocrites. If you’re going to cite the Bible and your deeply held religious beliefs, at least apply them consistently.

For example:

If you refuse to photograph one unbiblical wedding, you should refuse to photograph them all. If not, you’ll be seen as a hypocrite and as a known Christian, heap shame on the Gospel. As all Christians know, Jesus saved his harshest words for the hypocritical behavior of religious people. So, if Christian wedding vendors want to live by a law the Bible does not prescribe, they must at least be consistent.

Before agreeing to provide a good or service for a wedding, Christian vendors must verify that both future spouses have had genuine conversion experiences and are “equally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14) or they will be complicit with joining righteousness with unrighteousness. They must confirm that neither spouse has been unbiblically divorced (Matthew 19). If one has been divorced, vendors should ask why. Or perhaps you don’t even have to ask. You may already know that the couple’s previous marriages ended because they just decided it wasn’t working, not because there were biblical grounds for divorce. In which case, you can’t provide them a service if you believe such a service is affirming their union.

If your hotel is hosting the wedding and you don’t see rings on both individual’s fingers, you must refuse to rent them only one room. The unmarried couple must remain in separate rooms until after the ceremony. Otherwise, you may be complicit in fornication. And of course, you must not under any circumstances rent a room to a gay or lesbian couple.

While we’re talking Bible, where does the Bible command Christians to deny goods and services to non-Christians? Take Paul, for example. We know that Paul depending on support from churches, but we also know he was a tentmaker. Are we to assume that he only did business with other Jews and Christians? Given that he was a missionary, that seems unlikely, does it not? It seems much more likely that he did business with all sorts of people with whom he fundamentally disagreed about almost everything (see this exposition of Romans 1 for an example of the cultures in which he worked).

It seems to me that Paul would do the exact opposite of what Christians behind this legislation are doing. Romans 12:18:

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

What’s more “peaceable”? If someone with whom you disagree wants to buy something from you…
a. Deny them services and fight the lawsuit if they bring it.
b. Sell them what they want to buy.

From the perspective of Christian witness, are people more likely to be drawn to Christ or pushed away from Christ by a Christian who refuses services to a gay person?

Maybe this kind of legislation is one of the reasons millenials are leaving the church in droves.


4 thoughts on “Thoughts on religious exemptions to discrimination

  1. The way you phrase the intent of Christians who support this legislation is egregiously inaccurate. Christians have no intention of denying goods and services to gay people in general. The people being sued in such cases are on record as saying that they had absolutely no problem providing services to gay people. The photographer offered to do portraits, and the baker offered to bake any good the couple’s heart desired. The only service they denied was one which would implicate them in a ceremony which contradicted their cherished beliefs about marriage. In today’s desegregated, capitalist world, there is no reason to fear that allowing such exemptions would result in gays only having access to low quality options or none at all. There are hundreds of bakeries and thousands of photographers to choose from.
    And it’s not hypocritical to decline a service for a gay wedding while not scrutinizing all heterosexual ones. Whatever the failings of the latter, they at least conform fundamentally to the divine design for marriage, so helping to celebrate them affirms, at least in part, the truth about human beings made male and female in the image of God. But how can a same sex marriage even minimally do so?
    But even if it is hypocritical, how does that justify the government compelling people to participate in facilitating a ceremony that contradicts their beliefs?

    1. So, they didn’t deny services, except that they did deny services. I will stand by what I said there. Christians wanted to deny gay people services.

      Your point about divine design works against you. If divine design is one man and one woman, then divorced individuals remarrying is just as contra divine design as gay marriage.

      Bakers and florists do not facilitate weddings. I don’t even remember where we bought our flowers, I remember one of the names of our two photographers, and I haven’t spoken to the other since my wedding five and a half years ago. You are severely overstating the role of decorations.

      Religious ministers actually do facilitate weddings, and they are already protected.

      I would be curious how you think a florist refusing to sell flowers reflects the gospel to a gay couple. Do you think it is doing unto others as you would have done to you? Does it reflect God’s love? Does it draw people to Christ?

      1. No, you’re continuing to construe the intentions of Christians, your brothers and sisters, in the most uncharitable way possible. As is clear from the lawsuits, Christian businesspeople are willing and eager to provide excellent services to gays (sometimes over a period of many years), with the single exception of those that go against their beliefs about marriage. And it was not a case of ‘wanting’ to deny them service. Again, their willingness to serve them in any other capacity makes this a matter of ‘no other choice except to deny conscience’.

        A marriage can reflect divine design in some ways and not others. I would even grant that a same-sex wedding could reflect divine design in some ways, viz. its permanence and exclusivity. But in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian and leaning more and more towards the acceptance of relationships the diverge even further from the divine ideal (‘monogamish’, polyamorous, etc.) I think it is important to bear witness to sexual differentiation as an essential part of marriage.

        Bakers and florists, and photographers do most certainly facilitate weddings. Photographers are intimately involved in telling the story of the wedding. Being friends with a wedding photographer and seeing many examples of wedding photography online, the latter is clearly meant to make the nuptials look as beautiful as possible. Every aspect of the photography-the lighting, the angles, the close-ups-is designed to celebrate this relationship. Imagine a black wedding photographer asked to photograph a white supremacist wedding, and tell me how incidental photographers are to the affair. The same goes for bakers and florists. Their work is all supposed to help celebrate and affirm the wedding.

        The gospel is the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection saving us from sin. It’s not some sunshine and butterflies affirmation of everything people do. Sometimes sharing the gospel involves testifying that what a person is doing is contrary to God’s will. As for do unto others, I imagine Christians who take a stand like that would be more than eager for their brothers and sisters to testify when they are going against God’s will, and are eager for accountability regarding their own besetting sins.

        And yes, this can certainly reflect God’s love. Love often takes the form of warning the one you love that they are going down a wrong path, just see God’s prophetic warnings to his people in the Old Testament. As for whether it draws people to Christ, keep in mind that it is always on his terms. Jesus was never content with allowing people to continue in their sin, as long as it drew them to him. What about John the Baptist for that matter, denouncing Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife?

        1. No, you’re engaged in legalistic and self-serving hair-splitting when it comes both to the definition of the “divine design” for marriage and to the rationale of the defendants in these cases.
          If you or they think it is more “important to bear witness to sexual differentiation as an essential part of marriage” than, say, divorce and fornication, then you are picking and choosing your morality. Not only is that a big no-no for most conservative Christians (when other people do it at least), it is also clear evidence that you are simply baptizing your opposition to gays and lesbians in the name of Jesus. The legal term for that is discrimination. Honestly, how do you not see the hypocrisy in that line of defense? More to the point, how do you not see potential illegality of that business practice? Here’s where the analogy of race actually comes into play: if a white business refused to provide services for an interracial marriage because of their sincerely held religiously beliefs, would you be upset if the government found for the couple in a lawsuit?
          And if you or they think you are morally complicit in a wedding by taking pictures or baking a cake, then you really should stay home and stopping doing any kind of business with or work for anyone, ever. Because your understanding of complicity is absurdly oversimplified or self-serving or both. I agree that the plaintiffs in these cases had other options for bakers and photographers; I see where going to court ups the ante. I think it would have been better in each case for the couple to talk with the business owners and to find other providers if necessary. But I’m not gay and I can’t reasonably give advice to gays and lesbians about how to handle disapproval and discrimination when I’ll never have to experience those things myself. More importantly perhaps, letting these situations go only encourages other Christian-owned or managed businesses to also refuse services–or employment–to gays and lesbians for “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The proposed laws in AZ and other states proves that is a realistic possibility.
          So you can go on and on about how intolerance and discrimination toward gays and lesbians really is loving one’s neighbor because Jesus preached tough love, but what kind of small, petty, hard-hearted understanding of the gospel do you have to have to really believe that? I mean, do you really think that refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple because they are “sinners” and denouncing Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests for hypocrisy and exploitation are at all the same? Do you really think that refusing to photograph a gay wedding is really the same as saying “go and sin no more”? Let’s be clear: neither you nor the defendants in these cases are John the Baptist. No matter how much you think you want to be persecuted.

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