Religious freedom

One of the reasons I’m returning to blogging is the Supreme Court’s recent decision to legalize gay marriage across the nation.

The most common objection raised by religious conservatives (other than that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over this issue) is that gay marriage represents a blow to the religious freedom of conservative Christians.

This claim is obviously not true when it comes to positive expressions of religious freedom, namely the activities that Christians choose to perform. Gay marriage does not prevent Christians from worshiping, conducting bible studies, getting married, and so on.

Rather, the complaint lies with negative expressions of religious freedom, such as refusing to perform certain actions. For example, some Christian business owners feel that it is an expression of religious freedom to refuse service to gay customers. A much cited example involves a gay couple asking a Christian-run bakery to make them a wedding cake. Should the owners of the bakery be allowed to refuse such a request?

The same issue arises in the case of businesses required to provide birth control to their employees. If the business owners have religious objections to birth control, should they still be required to provide it?

Slippery slope arguments are not always particularly powerful, but there seems to be a case for one here. If we were all allowed to refuse certain services to people based on our personal distaste for these services, what would society look like? I suspect it would be a very difficult place to do business. Not only would it be more difficult to find business that provided a particular service, but there would be widespread discrimination.

Indeed, if service could be refused based on the religious convictions of the business owner, surely other sorts of objections should also be allowed? Shouldn’t white supremacists be allowed to refuse service to blacks? Shouldn’t Democrats be allowed to refuse service to Republicans, and vice versa? Where would this sort of thing stop?

I think the only way to avoid this quagmire is to set a very simple rule: if you are going to offer a service, offer it to whoever requests it. Otherwise, don’t offer the service at all.

This is, in fact, what some conservative Christians are doing. There is a county in Alabama (if memory serves) that has stopped issuing marriage licences, be they for heterosexual or homosexual couples. This makes a sort of sense – at least it is not discriminatory. Unfortunately, the problem is that local government is supposed to provide services like the issuing of marriage licences, so if it ceases providing these services, it’s not doing its job. But this would certainly be a reasonable solution for private businesses.

Unfortunately it is not a viable solution in the case of birth control and other examples of services the government requires private businesses to provide. In these cases, the business is not free to make its own decisions, but must follow the law. The US government has come up with a solution: provide the services to the business’s employees directly, so that the business owners are relieved of that responsibility. This seems pretty fair to me.

To sum up, I think a greater distinction needs to be made between positive expressions of religious freedom (e.g., worship) and negative expressions of religious freedom (e.g., refusal to provide a service). I don’t think the latter deserves the same degree of protection as the former.


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