Christians have been very bothered by the advancement of efforts to normalize homosexual marriage in the last few years. I must admit that I am also bothered by the aggressive pace. Bakers, florists and wedding photographers have all been hauled into courts to justify their refusal to serve homosexuals who ask them to provide services for their, now legal, weddings. Christian businesspeople in all these circumstances cite their deeply held religious beliefs concerning the immorality of homosexual behavior and, particularly, the legalization of homosexual marriage. The Christians are all free to hold to these convictions, but courts have ruled that Christian businesses may not act on these convictions in a way that leads them to refuse service to homosexuals.
Such figures as Drs. Albert Mohler and Russell Moore have weighed in, taking up the cause of the businesspeople and raising alarms about the erosion of religious liberty. I want to be clear: in some ways I agree with Drs. Mohler and Moore. I think there are signs that religious liberty is becoming a difficult to maintain freedom in the West, and a big part of that is the advancement of laws designed to curtail speech and open dissent surrounding the issue of homosexuality. But, I don’t believe that the examples cited in the United States of florists, bakers and photographers being told they can not refuse service is quite the crisis some imagine.
I’ve gotten into far too many discussions with folks and had the same line used repeatedly in defense of the liberty of business people to “refuse to serve whoever they want for whatever reason they want.” This line sounds great to advocates of an unrestrained free market, libertarians and the like. But, it would require the unmaking of laws put in place to protect minorities and women against discrimination and return us to the possibility of an era where society could be segregated along racial and gender lines, at least in the context of some businesses. Do I think such segregation would come? Only in a very limited way in communities where bigotry and hatred still have powerful holds. But, the adoption of such an attitude, consistently, would open the door to discrimination without restraint in the business world: should business owners be permitted to discriminate in hiring, or in any other area of operations when they are granted the right to discriminate in their refusal of service to certain kinds customers?
Personally, this quasi-libertarian argument opens way too many doors to way too many problems to be considered reasonable. I believe that businesses that operate publicly ought to serve the public, without unreasonable restrictions that can not be justified from a business or purely religious basis. I include the idea of “a purely religious basis” intentionally, and I want to argue that the florists, bakers and photographers can not use it as their justification. The reason I want to make that argument is because of what sounds like the start to a bad joke: A lesbian seeking a haircut from a Muslim.
In Canada, a lesbian is suing a Muslim barber for refusing to cut her hair. The reason the barber gave is that according to his religious beliefs he can not touch women who are not his wife. On the surface this sounds like the very same issue that the florists, bakers and photographers in America are facing: a desire to refuse service based on religious beliefs. There is a big difference though and I think many Christian miss it. Until this story came along I wasn’t even sure how to articulate my belief that Christians were wrong for denying services to homosexuals who wanted them to provide for their weddings.
The barber is on solid legal ground, or would be in the United States, because of the tendency of courts to steer clear of examining articles of religious faith. In order for a U.S. court to overrule the barbers decision to not cut the lesbian’s hair they would have to directly examine the barbers specific religious commitments and rule them invalid. This is an action that U.S. courts refuse to do because it isn’t their job to determine which religious beliefs are valid or not. So, how does this differ from the florists, bakers and photographers?
In the U.S. cases the Christian business owners have tended to defend their refusals to serve homosexuals on the basis that participation in their weddings would constitute an endorsement of such weddings and thus violate their Christian consciences. Here is where the problem lies: a court can examine whether participation is equivalent to endorsement without having to consider the religious beliefs of the businesspeople involved. The objection for the sake of conscience isn’t solely grounded in religious conviction, but is also based on an understanding of what participation denotes. Dr. Albert Mohler explicitly makes this connection when he writes “active participation can only be read as a forced endorsement of what they believe to be fundamentally wrong and sinful.” But, is participation, necessarily, endorsement?
Lets use some analogies to help clarify things: journalists actively participate in events of all sorts in much the same way as photographers do at weddings, yet their participation can not be construed as an implicit endorsement of the events they report on. Further, citizens in the U.S. elect leaders, yet the active participation of the citizens in the electoral process does not imply their endorsement of everything the government does. The issue is one of proximity and association, and so I’m led to believe that the argument that Dr. Mohler and others make in justifying Christians denying services to be used for homosexual weddings is an expression of the association fallacy. Florists, bakers and photographers are not required to give their consent to those being married, and so their participation is ancillary, and thus should not be understood as an endorsement.
For this reason I’m inclined to agree with the courts who have ruled that Christian businesses that provide service for weddings don’t have a firm basis for refusing services to homosexuals. They are still free to hold to their convictions concerning the immorality of such weddings, just as I do. But, unless they can remove the degree of separation established by being a business, or somehow prove that their involvement would, necessarily, require endorsement; I don’t see the cause for their rejection of business on purely religious grounds in these cases. The barber is not like the florist, the baker or the photograph taker in reality.