In cities and states across the U.S., we’ve seen a recent flood of proposed (and passed) so-called “religious protection” bills. These bills allow business owners to avoid penalties for refusing to provide service that violates their “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” Some of these bills are also described as ways for churches to avoid being forced to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies.

All of these terms—“religious protection” and “sincerely-held religious beliefs”—are code words that sound nice (I talked about such code words in an earlier blog post), but refer to something rather nasty.

These bills sprang up as a direct reaction to same-sex marriage becoming the law of the land, as a way to keep various businesses from having to provide services to gay couples (or flowers for gay weddings).

Various people on all sides of the equation are worried. People who disapprove of homosexuality are worried that they might be forced to somehow take part in providing services for a same-sex wedding. I have friends who are very supportive of gay rights, but who wonder if such “religious” protection might buffer them against having to, for instance, tattoo a swastika on a neo-Nazi. Gay people are rightfully worried, as we are worried about being turned away from everything from restaurants and hotels to doctors’ offices and hospitals.

A Multi-Faceted Issue

This issue has so many aspects to examine and address; I thought I’d take them one at a time so we can come to a better understanding of what these laws do and don’t do, as well as what they resemble in a historical civil rights context.

Churches Are Already Protected

There’s not much more I can say. Churches don’t have to conduct same-sex weddings. They don’t have to conduct any wedding with which they feel uncomfortable. Skeptical? How about if a Christian couple wants to get married in a Jewish temple? The rabbi can turn them away. A Catholic church can choose not to marry a couple where one partner has not converted to Catholicism. A Baptist minister can require that a couple take pre-marital counseling for a specific amount of time before he will agree to marry them. Individual churches already have control over who they will and won’t marry; that already exists and has not changed.

Refusing to Make a Specific Product ≠ Refusing to Serve a Specific Group of People

“I’m a tattoo artist and I’m worried that a white supremacist might sue me for refusing to tattoo a swastika on his scalp.”

“Asking a Christian-owned bakery to sell a cake for a gay wedding is like asking a Jewish deli to sell someone a ham sandwich.”

No. The first is not a concern and the second is not the same. Why? Because no one is being asked to create or sell a product they don’t normally create, carry, or sell. If you’re a tattoo artist and you’re not in the business of creating images of Nazi imagery or burning crosses, you can refuse to do so. You’re not telling your client, “I won’t tattoo you because you’re white/gay/Hispanic/Muslim;” you’re telling them “I do not tattoo swastikas on ANYONE, period.”

As for the bakery/Jewish deli scenario, it’s the same. A kosher Jewish deli doesn’t sell pork products. At all. To anyone. But they’re happy to sell their pastrami and corned beef to everyone who walks through their doors. The same should hold true for all businesses. If you create a wedding cakes for heterosexual weddings and a gay couple comes in and says, “Wow! I love the cake you have in your photo book; this one right here! We’d like to buy this cake for our wedding,” and you refuse to sell them the product you normally carry for sale for everyone else—that’s discrimination.

“But It Violates My Religion!” Has a Nasty History

Let me progress to the next point in my imaginary discussion with the hypothetical Christian bakery owners.

“But doing anything that supports homosexuality or same-sex weddings violates my religious beliefs! *insert appropriate scripture from Leviticus…Deuteronomy, etc.*”

That may be the case. And you might, really, sincerely feel that way. Having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian, I can 100% understand how distressing this must be for you (really, I do).

That doesn’t make it right.

More so, history will prove how wrong you are. You see, arguments just like that were used not too long ago to argue for things like segregation. Actually, after a quick Google, I see that white supremacists are STILL using scriptural arguments against, for instance, interracial marriage. While this is abhorrent if someone believes it privately, it becomes problematic if someone conducts their business with these kinds of beliefs, because now they are affecting, disrespecting—and even possibly harming—other people. Someone who believes that interracial marriage is wrong because of the way they interpret the Bible is a nasty person, but it gets ramped up to a new level when that person owns a flower shop and won’t sell flowers for an interracial couple’s wedding.

Why the Free Market Isn’t the Answer

But we can just leave things alone and let the free market sort things out, right? I mean, if a florist, bakery, or wedding planner states that they won’t serve gay people or same-sex weddings, then gay people won’t patronize them and the community can vote, with their dollars, whether or not they think this is ok.

That seems like a good idea until we put it into another context. Imagine if—in the 50s and 60s—the free market had been allowed to reign to decide whether or not segregation or refusal of service to black people would be tolerated? There would have been entire areas of the country where black people would have been hard-pressed to find a restaurant that would serve them, to find places to shop, to be rented a room at a hotel, or to get an education. I can imagine that there are areas of the country today where similar problems might arise for gay individuals or couples…and not everyone has the choice to simply move somewhere else (nor should they have to).

And what about industries beyond just the wedding/restaurant industry? What about hotels? Doctors offices? Hospitals and ambulance personnel? If a florist can legally tell a lesbian woman, “It violates my religious beliefs to sell you flowers for your wedding,” then should a restaurant be able to turn that woman and her wife away if the owner suspects they are a couple? If the two women drive cross-country late into the night and pull into the first hotel they’ve seen in over an hour, can the hotel owner turn them out because renting a room to a gay couple violates their religious beliefs? What if there is an emergency and one of the women calls an ambulance for her wife? Do we want legal protections for medical personnel who feel that rendering aid to a gay person might violate their religious beliefs?

I know I’m going into a long line of “what ifs,” here, but as a gay person who listens to these “religious protection” debates play out, these are very real concerns. Being turned away from your wedding venue or bakery of choice would be heartbreaking, infuriating and embarrassing, but being turned away from a doctor’s office, denied care or denied entrance to your spouse’s hospital room because any of these things happened to violate someone’s religious beliefs are all terrifying possibilities.

Religious beliefs are subjective. There are no boundaries to what kinds of people or beliefs we are legally protecting with the passage of these laws. In promoting this sort of legislation, we’re not really protecting freedom for all; we’re protecting a mean-spirited (in the least) and dangerous (at worst) mentality that has been used for decades to deny freedom to certain groups.

(Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto.)

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