Despite the frequent but dubious suggestions that forcing people to call gay relationships “marriage” won’t hurt anyone, it’s already coming at the expense of religious freedom. You’ve no doubt heard of the Christian photographers in New Mexico who refused to help commemorate a homosexual relationship and the court ruling that forces such participation in the future. I’ve heard a number of arguments from Christians indicating that this ruling does no real harm, and so I’d like to take a moment to offer some counter-arguments.
- This ruling does not violate anyone’s religious freedom because it only refers to business dealings in the public sphere. Business dealings in the public sphere are religiously neutral.
Response: A plurality of gods always requires an additional god that is exalted higher than any of the others to help manage disputes among them. When religious freedom is framed as a pluralistic religious neutrality, it always results in the abolition of real religious freedom for whomever does not worship the chief god of the state. The reason for this is simple: religious neutrality is an incoherent concept.
Whether you go with Luther, who described a “god” as where we ultimately look to for goodness, or Tillich on the liberal side who described a “god” as an ultimate concern that trumped all others, or even colloquial language in which we describe unwavering devotion to a regular task as “religious,” the common denominator is that a person’s god (whatever form that takes) reigns over everything else. To say to such a god that he may not tread on some particular ground is to deny its divinity altogether by subjecting it to something of even more importance—a higher god. When the state tries to create religion-free zones for the sake of peace, order, equality, or what-have-you, it is anything but religion-free; it is, in fact, imposing its own religion on those involved at the expense of theirs.
- This ruling does not violate anyone’s religious freedom because Christians approach financial dealings as businessmen and business-women rather than as Chrisitians.
Response: It’s certainly true that we approach different tasks according to our different vocations. Accordingly, we approach our public business services as business people. The problem comes in with that additional phrase, “rather than as Christians,” which sets up a false dichotomy between the two. For while our vocations are distinct, they are also unified in the single person who possesses them both. In other words, we do not cease to be Christians as we carry out our other vocations.
This should be obvious simply from all the instructions God gives Christians regarding financial transactions that would qualify as “public” in the way most people use the term. Even liberals love many of those verses. If we are supposed to conduct business “as business people rather than as Christians,” then these instructions would literally be nonsense.
- This ruling does not violate anyone’s religious freedom because Christianity does not actually prohibit Christians from assisting in the commemoration of wickedness.
Response: Given that God has specifically warned against those who call evil good and good evil, I find this to be a dubious proposition. Still, the practicality of day-to-day life does introduce difficult questions of how exactly one should deal with these kinds of situations. I am open to different answers to these questions; I think it’s a matter best relegated to our own Biblically-informed good judgment. God hasn’t given us a precise flowchart for living, after all.
However, it is precisely because I am open to different answers that I must contend for the freedoms of those who give either answer. After all, if I were to say what this argument seems to imply, “Christianity doesn’t forbid such actions, therefore requiring them doesn’t violate religious liberty,” all I would really be saying is “my own religious liberties aren’t at stake, therefore the government can violate away.” As they say, “I didn’t speak up when they came for ______…” I’m sure everyone knows how that story ends.
- It’s worth this violation of religious freedom so that you won’t be discriminated against yourself. For example, should an unbeliever be allowed to refuse to photograph a Christian wedding?
Response: If we are to invoke the Golden Rule on this matter, I would have to conclude from its application that I would absolutely not want an unbeliever to be forced to help commemorate and celebrate a Christian marriage. What if this unbeliever is a feminist, as most Americans are? Do I really want some poor feminist photographer to be forced to help commemorate a woman promising (among other things) to submit to a man as unto God for the rest of her natural life? That’s a remarkably offensive notion to many people, and I have no wish to force their participation in it.
- It’s worth this violation of religious freedom because allowing business owners to refuse service in such cases would take us back to the days of Jim Crow.
Response: Yes, racism is bad, mmm’kay? But some ways of combating it bear to high of a price tag. It is true that some civil rights legislation forbids businesses from turning away customers that belong to certain protected groups simply because they belong to said groups. I contend that the price of such laws is too high. Freedom of association and freedom of speech have already been sacrificed on their altar–now freedom of religion joins them. Perhaps it is time to find a way to help oppressed neighbors that doesn’t involve taking away the freedoms of all groups of Americans.
- Religious freedom must be violated in such cases because no one has the right to contribute to systematic discrimination against a particular group.
Response: Once we strip away the overheated rhetoric, this argument is revealed to be a paper tiger. First, let’s get rid of “systematic.” Unless there is some parent company or secret Council of Bigots directing these photographers, then the word doesn’t apply. A moral opinion shared amongst a modest minority does not a “system” make. Second, “discrimination” has become a very loaded term, so let’s call it what it really is in this case: denial of services. Finally, there’s no need for this “group” stuff. Group identities of this kind are constantly shifting and used primarily for cheap and short-sighted political & rhetorical leverage, so I don’t think they belong in our laws.
The only question that remains is whether American business-people should be allowed to deny services to people with whom they do not want to do business. It’s remarkably easy to answer “yes” to this.
- Religious freedom must be violated in order to guard against a Christian-dominated society in which some people will find no businesses that will be willing to serve them.
Response: This is the kind of argument I would expect to hear from aliens visiting earth for the first time in centuries. Has it happened in the past? Yes. Does it look likely to happen in America anytime soon? No. Describing this possibility as merely “remote” would be far too generous. The Moral Majority is no longer in any way a majority, and it was secular humanist politicians who recently tried (and failed) to break an American business merely because they were tangentially associated with some other people who thought homosexuality was wrong. Contrary to the popular stereotype, it seems that liberals rather than conservatives are the ones stuck in the past—specifically, a largely mythologized 1950’s.
There is a very remote possibility of such a thing occurring sometime in the future, but fearing this amounts to a phobia. Attempting to preclude every remote possibility of harm and inconvenience to anyone is synonymous with tyranny.
We must learn to understand religious liberty in a way that doesn’t rely on incoherent notions of religiously neutral social zones. Failing that, religious freedom will be lost altogether. As Christians continue to lose the freedoms we have historically enjoyed in America, we’ll need to decide whether to do homage to the government’s god in exchange for citizenship. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, those of us who thought that, in America, Christians had found our place in the world may realize that the world was simply finding its place in us.