Religious Freedom

Last month I reflected on the recent changes regarding same sex (or same gender) marriage in our society and the church. Due to length, I left out my thoughts about religious freedom. As same sex marriage becomes more common, many Christians are struggling how to respond. One issue that has arisen is that of one’s religious freedom. When Jean and I were recently in Salt Lake City, Utah’s legislature was considering “religious freedom laws” as same sex marriage had been declared legal there. The concern was that if we are going to protect peoples’ right to marry, then we should protect peoples’ religious freedom as well. For example, if I as a Christian believe that same sex marriage is contrary to God’s will for us, then I should have the right to deny someone a service I provide, say for their wedding. To illustrate, say I bake wedding cakes and advertise to the public, and a same gender couple comes and asks me to bake a cake for their wedding, for my fee of course. Should I have the right to refuse them service because of my religious views? Or, say I own a restaurant and a same gender couple wants to hold their reception at my business. Should I have the right to refuse them service on account of my religious views? What do you think?

We hear concerns about the loss of our religious freedom, or the potential loss. Amid these concerns we wonder whether someone should have the right to refuse service to someone with whose lifestyle we disagree. Some within the church are championing such laws to “guarantee” such “rights.” I do not agree. Why?

While I do not agree with recent court decisions legalizing same gender marriage, and would rather have found alternative ways to guard the rights, privileges and responsibilities that attend a committed relationship, I believe my rights to my religious freedom are intact. I remain thankful for the religious liberty I enjoy. I can hold these beliefs even if I am in the minority. Moreover, while secular law may recognize same gender marriage, religious groups are free to define marriage as we understand it. Even though the Presbyterian Church now allows same gender marriage services in the church, that decision remains the responsibility of each local church and pastor. We as a community of faith are free to discern God’s will pertaining to marriage and act accordingly.

However, our right to religious freedom has limits, as every freedom has. In the public marketplace I cannot use my right to religious freedom to deny someone a public service. Consider this scenario: I am a Christian who bakes wedding cakes; it’s how I make my living. If a same gender couple comes to me desiring to hire my services, that is, to bake a cake for their wedding, what should I do? Should I have the right to deny them service based on my religious beliefs? It may be an interesting question, but I believe not. Here’s why.

First I am in the business to serve the public. Hobby Lobby is a Christian business that sells craftware. I imagine the owners of Hobby Lobby would not favor legalization of same gender marriage, based on what I have read about them. The same is true for Chick-fil-A and the Cathy family. Their personal views are pretty conservative. If a gay or lesbian couple comes in their store, should they have the right to refuse service? or even to sell items that would be used for their wedding? Think about it. These two companies, indeed all businesses, undoubtedly sell products and services to many people whose lifestyles they would not approve. The same is true for a wedding cake baker or wedding photographer. I can almost assure you they have made cakes for people whose lifestyles they would not approve, whether their customers had lived together prior to marriage, or engaged in sexual relations apart before marriage. You might sell a used car to someone without doing a moral background check on them. If I were a wedding cake baker, or wedding photographer, I believe I have a public obligation to provide the service to the public, which would include people whose lifestyle I might not approve. I am making their cake, not joining them in marriage. Likewise, if I am a probate judge in Alabama, and the law clearly legalizes same gender marriage, then I have a public obligation to issue a marriage license, regardless what my personal beliefs are. What about my religious freedom? If the job requires something I cannot do, then I have the freedom to give up the job if I don’t want to comply with the law. Opening the door to discrimination based on one’s religious belief could result in discrimination on a wide basis. It would be open to widespread abuse. Surely this is not where we would want to go?

But I would challenge us to go further, to think more deeply about the issue by asking, “what is my best witness for Christ?” If I bake wedding cakes and a same gender couple wants to use my services for their wedding, I believe my best witness would be to treat them with kindness and respect, and make for them the best cake I can make. I believe that’s what Jesus would do. And so I believe that is what we, Christ’s Church, should do.

I remain grateful that we as Christians, and people of all faiths, enjoy freedom to live out our faith, as long as we do not trample on the rights of others (as our laws define them). I respect the role of government to provide for order in our society, even though I may not agree with every law or regulation. For the most part, I believe we and our leaders are striving to live out the basic ideals of this country: freedom, justice, equality, respect for ourselves and others and the rule of law, to name a few.

As followers of Jesus may we continue to be his presence to one another, our community and the world. Think about it. I welcome rich conversations with you as we seek to walk faithfully into the future.

In Christ’s Service,