It’s not as simple as homophobic thugs vs. civil rights in Indiana

April 1, 2015
Business owner holds sticker to place outside her shop in Lafayette, Indiana

Elizabeth Ladd, owner of River Knits Fine Yarns, poses while holding up a “This businesses serves everyone” sticker she plans to place outside her business in downtown Lafayette, Indiana March 31, 2015. REUTERS/Nate Chute

In the recent blowup surrounding Indiana’s (and now Arkansas’) Religious Freedom Restoration Acts — which would exempt people and corporations from anti-discrimination laws, if they provide a religious justification — casual observers might think supporters and opponents are talking about two different laws.

To RFRA’s supporters, the bill is about protecting religious freedom from government intrusion, and has nothing to do with discrimination. But to its opponents, it’s a license to discriminate, and is motivated by animus against the LGBT community.

Who’s right? In fact, both are.

Three years ago, when I started researching the movement to carve out religious exemptions from civil rights laws, I assumed that the “religious freedom” language was merely a subterfuge — a clever way to disguise anti-abortion and anti-gay laws as something other than what they were. I called it then “the covert campaign against civil rights.”

I gradually discovered I was wrong. A significant segment of the American population — up to one-third, I’d estimate — does sincerely believe that Christians are being persecuted and religious liberty is under attack. From their perspective, when a state anti-discrimination law compels a photographer to take pictures of a gay couple, that is an unconscionable violation of the First Amendment — as well as God’s law.

That case, in which a small business called Elane Photography was found guilty of violating anti-discrimination laws, is a poster child for the religious liberty movement.

Look at the same facts from the perspective of the couple, however. Allowing Elane Photography to turn them away is, feels like, and looks like discrimination. It’s like allowing stores to display “No Gays Allowed” signs.

(As an aside, one clever Oklahoma legislator proposed amending her state’s RFRA to require just that: disclose who you want to exclude and let the market pass judgment on your values. The entire bill subsequently died in committee.)

These conflicts happen all the time. Sometimes, balancing them is easy. In January, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the state of Arkansas had to allow a Muslim prison inmate to grow a short beard. It weighed the state’s interests in security against the inmate’s First Amendment rights, and the case was a slam dunk. (Then again, it was deemed worthy of review, so maybe not.)

Other times, the balance is difficult. In a powerful concurring opinion in the Elane Photography case, a New Mexico judge confessed that he struggled with his decision. The law was clear: if you open a business, you play by the rules of the market, and that includes anti-discrimination laws. But he also understood the religious convictions of the photographer, and the difficult choice he was forcing her to make.

Indiana’s RFRA, like others, would likely cause that case to come out the other way. And so, both RFRA’s supporters and opponents are right. Indiana’s RFRA, like others, is both a “license to discriminate” and a “protection of religious freedom.”

Is there no way forward, then? Must the two sides continue to talk past one another, each more irate than the other?

To do better will take some hard thinking.

First, let’s narrow the problem as much as possible. Indiana’s RFRA is worse than most, because it specifically includes large corporations, as well as family-owned businesses and religiously affiliated organizations like Catholic hospitals and universities.

This is much too large a slice of the pie. Three years ago, I predicted that Americans would be shocked to learn that doctors can deny treatment to the child of a same-sex couple, as one did last October I was right. But it’s even worse that entire hospital systems can deny visitation rights to spouses and deny medical care to those in need. Proponents of religious exemptions should recognize this, and stop trying to intervene in as many aspects of American life as possible.

Second, both sides need introspection. On the LGBT side, it’s time to stop calling religious people bigots and homophobes. I oppose the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, with every fiber of my ideological being. But there is still an enormous gulf between socially conservative believers and homophobic thugs. We need to take these beliefs seriously.

On the conservative side, it’s time to recognize that the vast majority of Americans — three- quarters, according to polls — believe it is wrong to discriminate against gay people. The people have spoken, the courts have (mostly) spoken, and this is the law of the land.

Thus, although race and sexual orientation are indeed different, there is no relevant difference between religious objections to civil rights laws protecting gays, and to those protecting blacks. Segregationists, too, believed that God’s law should trump humanity’s. But that is not how the rule of law works in America.

It’s time, too, for some more sober theological reflection. Is that photographer — again, the best possible case for conservatives — really “participating in” or “enabling” a same-sex wedding? Would we hold her liable for photographing a couple who turned out to be thieves, embezzlers or drunkards, condemned in the same verse of the Bible as “men who have sex with men”? Of course not.

Likewise, corporations who provide insurance, and pharmacists who dispense medication, are not morally liable for how someone else uses it. Show me one Biblical verse that says that they are. No, the responsible party is the person who commits the act in question. She bears responsibility, and she should be able to make her own decision.

Speaking of Biblical verses, how about Mark 12:17, in which Jesus tells his followers (and those who sought to entrap him) to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”? Many believed paying taxes to Rome was a sin. Yet Jesus said that obeying temporal laws did not mean violating divine ones.

Finally, if all else fails, all that God-fearing people need to do, if they want to avoid serving gay people, is say that they’re busy. Isn’t that simpler than legitimating discrimination and passing laws that turn people into second class citizens? Just say you don’t have time to photograph the wedding.

I understand that evangelizing is part of the faith, and conservative Christians want to stand firm in their beliefs. But we live in a diverse nation. And part of living together is that I don’t get to discriminate against people for being Christian, and they don’t get to discriminate against me for being gay — even if we each feel morally impelled to do so.

Yes, our country’s public values have evolved on homosexuality, just as they previously did on race. We’re each entitled to form our own views about that, try to convince others of their rightness, and even to act on them, as long as we’re not affecting someone else. But that is the red line: religion cannot be an excuse to compromise another person’s status as an equal citizen under the law.

It is possible for the same act to be both religious and discriminatory. But in a democracy, the rule of law must prevail.

28 comments

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It is that simple. All dogma is mental illness. We shouldn’t desire that a bunch of overtly and aggressively defective people define our social policies. Aspire, don’t cower!

Posted by Nurgle | Report as abusive

“up to one-third, I’d estimate — does sincerely believe that Christians are being persecuted”

Yes, and 60% of republicans think evolution is not happening. Not the sharpest bunch, but people can change.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

You can keep your dogma. And keep your application for a license state to operate a business, take tax deductions at the expense of the public treasury, etc. Your extension of your dogma within the public sphere need not be tolerated by the public.

Posted by Heyoka | Report as abusive

Indiana politicians were acting like alabama hicks. They should know better.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Tell me what the difference is between the overturned laws which permitted a business owner to decline service to a black person at his lunch counter, and this new Indiana law.

Posted by Yowser | Report as abusive

Would our society be outraged if:

A gay printshop refused to print anti-gay posters and flyers for the Westboro Baptist Church?

A black-owned bakery refused to cater the inauguration of the new KKK Grand Dragon?

A Jewish-owned limo service declined to accommodate a request to drive
Hamas leaders to an anti-Israel rally?

No, you say, very likely not.

Then by the same logic a Christian photographer should not be forced, under penalty of fines (or worse?), to shoot a same-sex wedding.

Or does logic count for anything here?

John Patrick Grace
Huntington, West Virginia

Posted by publishersplace | Report as abusive

“Would our society be outraged if:A black-owned bakery refused to cater the inauguration of the new KKK Grand Dragon? A Jewish-owned limo service declined to accommodate a request to drive Hamas leaders to an anti-Israel rally?”

Well if you think being born gay is the same thing as choosing to be a terrorist…. you’re kind of a bigot. And part of the problem.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

JPG: I see your point, even though the denials of service in your examples were all to hate groups. Still, I don’t think even those denials of service are justified, if the groups seeking the service have not been ruled illegal organizations within the U.S.

Posted by Yowser | Report as abusive

Money will trump god, eventually, every time.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

So should gay sign painter be required to paint signs which oppose gay marriage?

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive

Religious people regularly get made fun of in public forums like this one. Read the comments of people who posted before me. Many commentators on this subject want to do away with religious freedom

Most state colleges have courses which denigrate and make fun of religious beliefs. Comments about Christians are accepted as reasonable opinions that would be removed from the blog if posted about women, Blacks, blgt or other “approved” minority groups. College would treat those opinions as hate speech.

Until BLGTs are tolerant of traditional Christians, I see no reason for traditional Christians to be tolerant of homosexuals. This is a cultural battle. We know from the Muslims that never giving in makes liberals back down. Christians can learn that if they stand fast, liberals will change their minds and accept them.

I disagree with both sides.

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive

The author says “the movement to carve out religious exemptions from civil rights laws” from ignorance and religious discrimination. A person who believes homosexuality is sin and does not want people who are homosexuals in their place of business have the civil rights to refuse service. Homosexuality is mental illness.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

You should be allowed to discriminate based on your religion as soon as you can prove that your god exists.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

Why do these supporters of homosexuality draw constant comparisons with race?
Being a homosexual has nothing to do with being black!

Posted by summarex | Report as abusive

Any law that resonably can be expected to be used as cover for discrimination has NO PLACE being enacted – by any state, local, or federal body.

Apologies don’t cover this – revisions don’t cover this – brigning back any legal form of segregation is unacceptable conduct in a civlized nation.

Posted by DonD1977 | Report as abusive

Any law that resonably can be expected to be used as cover for discrimination has NO PLACE being enacted – by any state, local, or federal body.

Apologies don’t cover this – revisions don’t cover this – brigning back any legal form of segregation is unacceptable conduct in a civlized nation.

Posted by DonD1977 | Report as abusive

No one has congratulated Dr. Michaelson on his intellectual bravery for admitting he changed his mind about how he viewed this issue. It shows an open mind, a true rarity in this polarized, hypocritical age. Bravo!!!

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

Most of these people say they they want less government, so what do they do?… pass more laws! What hypocrites!!!

Posted by CMEBARK | Report as abusive

No.
It’s homosexual thugs and their corporate supporters versus normal people who for religious reasons, object to homosexuality.

Posted by summarex | Report as abusive

Truly religious people should just move to Iran – religious country. Where there is no homosexuality :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I guess I’m being discriminate agaist. My post don’t seem to show.

Posted by thereyUgo | Report as abusive

Well I give up I’ll post somewhere else since what I really want to say won’t post. The truth must be to hard for you.

Posted by thereyUgo | Report as abusive

Let’s see. Under Christian and Jewish law (Deuteronomy 22:21), a woman shall be stoned to death by men if found not to be a virgin upon marriage.

Should this be a protected “religious freedom” in America? If not, why not?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The text:

http://biblehub.com/deuteronomy/22-21.ht m

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

With all due respect, what do you, then, make of when Acts 15 states to avoid sexual immorality and Acts 4 recalls when Peter and John obeyed G-d over the rabbis? Also, Galatians 3:28 (that misinterpreted verse) does condemn racism, sexism, and classism (and does not abrogate ethnicity, gender/sex, or status).

Posted by Nickidewbear | Report as abusive

Let’s rejoin the real world, shall we? There’s a simple fact about running a business: you’re not going to approve of all your customers. You’re not even going to like all your customers. In fact, you may well downright hate some of your customers. Some will smell bad. Some will dress, talk, or walk in ways you don’t like. Some will treat you like dirt. Some will believe things you don’t agree with, or are horrified by, or outright despise. But guess what: you are not there to judge them. You are not there to decide that some of them are beyond the pale and others are not. You are not there to decide that your ever-so-holy ideas are ever-so-much-holier than their ideas. In short, you are not there to make any such decisions, because any such decision constitutes a shameful act of blatant discrimination. You are there to provide the goods and services of your businesss to all your customers alike. If you can’t deal with that, if your beloved beliefs just won’t let you manage that, then you need to find another way of life, period.

Posted by Rugeirn | Report as abusive

AlkalineState, I feel obligated to point out that Christians, for the most part, don’t follow Old Testament law, rather they follow the Ten Commandments and Christ’s law of “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”. Now, I would argue, strongly, that I would not expect an atheist to attend my Church wedding against his or her will. But if they are willing to profit by providing the music for the reception or photographing the ceremony, fine. However, if they objected to attending the wedding then I would simply find a different photographer. I wouldn’t use the law to force them to photograph my wedding.

A more extreme case would be forcing a Catholic hospital to perform abortions, i.e. murder innocent children according to their beliefs. The list goes on, but the simple fact is the Constitution protects all of us from discrimination, not just certain, well funded special interest groups.

Posted by KG2015 | Report as abusive

“Finally, if all else fails, all that God-fearing people need to do, if they want to avoid serving gay people, is say that they’re busy. Isn’t that simpler than legitimating discrimination and passing laws that turn people into second class citizens? Just say you don’t have time to photograph the wedding.”

So you would have someone making a stand of conscience commit the sin of lying in order to do so. Interesting. How about this – if hiring that photographer is so important to you that you can’t go and hire a willing photographer, then why don’t you lie and tell them you aren’t gay?

Posted by chaemeleo | Report as abusive