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Three Questions


Last Friday Arizona became the first state to pass a bill that will allow for-profit business owners to claim a religious exemption in service to customers and treatment of employees. The bill, which would have allowed business owners to refuse to serve gay people and discriminate between genders in terms of pay, was vetoed by the governor yesterday. Eight other states are somewhere in the process of considering similar pieces of legislation.

These pieces of legislation are being presented in response to two events. One, the Supreme Court rulings that were decided in favor of the LGBT community generally and two, where courts ruled that wedding vendors (like photographers and bakers) had to provide services for gay weddings despite their religious objection. The argument from conservative Christians is simple. My religious belief tells me that being gay is a sin. Therefore a gay wedding is a sin. Any assistance that I give to a gay wedding that involves my time and talent would be me helping a sin to take place, and I don’t want to do that. As I have said previously, the argument has some legitimacy. I see the logic of the argument that the government should not mandate the violation of conscience in order to force you to commit what you see as a sin. For reasons I stated in other forums, if forced to pick a side, I have to disagree with that logic.[1] But I admit that it is logical. Michael Peabody, editor of and someone who generally disagrees with me about the outcome of the photography case wrote a really good article about attempting to balance these two tensions. Peabody wants to find a way forward. I agree with him on that. In fact I would take his work a step further. I think it needs to be explicitly stated that if there is going to be a compromise in this type of situation, the only way it can work is if everybody loses. In my opinion there is no solution that can accommodate everyone. Any compromise would have to involve some LGBT couples living with discrimination in some cases, and some Christians having to provide service in some form or another in other cases. I could foresee a system in which Christian photographers, etc. have to provide referrals for jobs they don’t want to perform. This would by definition involve LGBT couples having to live with some discrimination. I can see photographers having to take jobs in low population areas where there are no easy referrals. That by definition would involve having to do weddings they don’t want to do. Even as I write this I have problems with that plan. It makes me incredibly uncomfortable to say that in some cases discrimination is OK. Before I could even support my own plan, I would need someone to answer three questions – two political, and one spiritual.

The first political question that they would have to explain to me is – “How is this not like race?” I have asked this question for months and no one would give me a straight answer except for the two White, heterosexual, Christian, young men who agreed that it was like race and had no problem with racial discrimination based on race. (To which I thought to myself, “Of course you don’t have any problem with racial discrimination based on religion.) No one wants to give me a straight answer on this, and I’m beginning to think that’s because there isn’t one that anyone feels comfortable saying. So this is my problem. If my wife and I walked into our wedding photographer’s office before our wedding and said, “We want to hire you,” and our photographer said, “Well I don’t do Black weddings because I believe that you are subhuman based on my religion and I only do human weddings. But here’s a list of people who will do your wedding,” I don’t know how I would respond. I don’t know if that’s a system that I can live with. I don’t know how other people who think racism is bad can think that would be a reasonable system to have. Somebody needs to help me understand that.

Some people make the argument that sexual orientation is a choice and therefore, we can discriminate based on the fact that the LGBT community has made these choices. If I concede the underlying question and agree that sexual orientation is a choice, then it leads me to my second question – “How is this not like religion?” Religion is a protected class in our society. No business owner is allowed to refuse to serve Catholics, or Baptists, or Adventists. But religion is a choice. The supposed difference is that we believe that religion is such an important decision, so wrapped up in our conception of who we are as human beings that we need to protect the choice of religion from discrimination. Why can the same not be said for the LGBT community? I think sexual orientation can certainly be described as a choice made that is so germane to someone’s identity that it deserves protection from discrimination. In fact, I think a strong argument can be made that sexuality may be more ingrained than choice of faith. After all, I remember when I chose to be Adventist. I have no idea when I chose to be straight.

My spiritual question is, “Do we think this is something Jesus would do?” I’m having a hard time formulating a theology where Jesus is a business owner and refuses to serve people based on his religious beliefs. I’m finding it much easier to do the opposite, which is to hold a biblically based theology that Jesus helps people even on the margins (or outside) His religious community and who His religious beliefs tell Him to shun. Jesus hangs out with sinners who the religious class rejects, he holds a conversation with a Samaritan woman (double no-no there), heals the family members of people who don’t really believe in Him, touches the unclean,  hangs out with more than one cheating tax collector, helps a woman whom He initially likens to a dog, and refuses to mete out just punishment on an adulteress. Jesus seems to have no regard for who these people are, what they have done, or what they will do with His blessing after He’s given it to them. Interestingly enough, God does the same thing, blessing even those who He knows do not acknowledge Him.

This clash between discrimination and religious liberty seems to be an intractable problem. Yet we have seen this problem before. The government mandated against discrimination and society and the church eventually caught up. I don’t know that the same thing will happen here, but I do know the solutions being offered in state legislatures around the country are more than a step too far.

[1] See the previous link for this argument.

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