Why Public Discrimination Laws Aren’t an Attack on Religious Freedom

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of marriage equality, many Christians are concerned about being barred from discriminating against same sex couples in their business. Although churches are exempted from anti-discrimination laws and can refuse anyone they want, Christian business owners that operate for-profit businesses are subject to the same anti-discrimination laws as all other public business owners. Is this just? Is this an affront to their religious liberty? Here are my thoughts.

What does religious freedom mean?

The International Religious Freedom Act defines five violations of religious freedom:
Arbitrary prohibitions on, restrictions of, or punishment for: (i) assembling for peaceful religious activities such as worship, preaching, and prayer, including arbitrary registration requirements; (ii) speaking freely about one’s religious beliefs; (iii) changing one’s religious beliefs and affiliation; (iv) possession and distribution of religious literature, including Bibles and other sacred texts; (v) raising one’s children in the religious teachings and practices of one’s choice.

When reviewing a country’s state of religious freedom, we look for laws or policies that:

1) restrict the right to hold a religious belief;
2) limit the right to change religious belief;
3) restrict the freedom to have an allegiance to a religious leader;
4) disparage individuals or groups on the basis of their religion;
5) discriminate against religious persons in education, the military, employment opportunities or in health services;
6) require the designation of religion on passports or national identity documents, either overtly or in code;
7) restrict religious assembly;
8) restrict religious expression.


Nowhere does it say that religious freedom includes the right to refuse someone else service in a public place. I think that some people  don’t understand what religious liberty means. It seems they think religious liberty is a free pass to do whatever they want, even if it hurts other people or breaks the law. But religious liberty just means that you have the right to believe what you want and act on and express those beliefs as long as it doesn’t directly hurt other people. Once your beliefs start negatively and directly affecting others who don’t share your beliefs, your rights stop. That’s why we don’t allow other religious groups to force women to wear burkas, to perform human sacrifices, deny non-kosher foods to the rest of us, to abuse their children because of their beliefs, or to twist our legal system to force their personal rules on other people. 

Christians in the U.S. have long enjoyed special and unconstitutional exceptions to this, and many have gotten used to it. But having special privileges doesn’t mean those are a part of your constitutionally protected religious freedom. It means Christians were the majority for a long time and thus got to claim a lot of things as “religious freedom” that actually aren’t.

Leveling the playing field to be fair to everyone isn’t religious persecution, it’s the removal of privileges that you shouldn’t have had to begin with.

Businesses Aren’t Churches

Churches and non-profit religious organizations are protected from anti-discrimination laws. For-profit, public businesses are not. Why?

1. Public businesses are not the place for religious judgments.

There is a time and place for religion to be expressed to others, and the potential list is vast- church, your home, in non-profit religious organizations, in a peaceful protests on signs or in conversation, online or in print, in private religious schools, on any private property, and many more. Public places of business are not one of them. Unless it’s a Christian bookstore that specifically sells only Christian products and thus is blatantly catered to Christians, people do not go to a public business to hear about the owner’s religion. And they certainly don’t go to any business to be judged for not following the owner’s religion! They go there to buy a product or receive a service- that’s it. Public businesses are a shared public space that should be accessible to the general public. If business owners want the benefits of being in business with the public, instead of only doing business with other like-Christians, then they must follow the same laws as all other business owners.

2. Selling products or services to same-sex couples doesn’t mean you’re participating in their wedding.

Are you participating in sin if you sell a wedding cake to someone who was divorced and is remarrying? What about participating in a Satanist wedding where religious chants that go against your religion may be presented? What if the man is a 50 year old playboy and the girl barely 18, and you morally object to their union even though it’s legal? What if the couple are Muslims and mention in passing that they’re having the wedding performed in a mosque? What if you strongly suspect or know for sure that one of them is being unfaithful?

My point is this: There are countless possible moral objections that a Christian business owner could have against couples who come looking for their services. You can sell someone a cake and not agree with how they’re going to use it. You can take pictures of a wedding and not approve of it because of a huge age difference, gender combination, suspected infidelity, past divorce, objectionable content in the ceremony or location, and so many more. You, as a business owner, are selling a service or a product, you are not condoning every single marriage you photograph or make food for.

3. You can’t possibly avoid serving people who are sinning or who may sin using your products or services.

Unless you are going to start screening couples to make sure they’re not also breaking other Christian marital rules regarding morality, such as divorce and infidelity, objecting to serving LGBTQ couples is hypocritical. If you’re condoning a couple’s sins by selling goods and services to them, then you’re also condoning sins that you probably usually overlook or conveniently ignore but are also un Biblical. The Bible says all sin is the same, so you can’t pick and choose.

Our nation has seen the harm that is caused by legal discrimination in public businesses.

How would you feel if you were white, and were marrying a black partner, and the wedding vender was racist and refused you service? That used to be legal, and it happened all the time. And Christians back then used the Bible to support their racism just as some Christians today use it to support their anti-gay stances.

Legalized discrimination almost always goes hand-in-hand with higher rates of violence against the discriminated party. When the government says “these people don’t deserve to be respected like the rest of us”, that tells the public that they don’t have to respect us either. The result? Society always takes it further than the government does. The LGBTQ community experiences high rates of bullying, harassment, and attempted or successful assault (including sexual assault and murder). We cannot allow our laws to segregate us because the segregated parties are the ones targeted for intense negative social stigma and violence.

Christians are already protected by anti-discrimination laws. They are also the majority in this nation and rarely experience true discrimination unless they are also a person of color, LGBTQ, etc., so most of them don’t understand the importance of anti-discrimination laws- they don’t ever have to worry about it. But other groups do- such as people of color and LGBTQ people. We’re the ones who are most at risk for discrimination, and thus societal violence and oppression. So we need these protections far more than you do!

You’re breaking Biblical rules. 

The Bible says to obey the governing authorities. If the government says to serve everyone equally, then aren’t you being obedient to God’s command by doing so? The Bible does not say to refuse to serve sinners in public businesses, so you’re not breaking a commandment by obeying these laws. Even if you personally object, you’re supposed to obey authority unless specifically commanded to break God’s laws. Read it for yourself:

Romans 13 (ESV)

Submission to the Authorities

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Fulfilling the Law Through Love

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Discriminating is hurting your neighbor AND it’s refusing to obey the authorities which God says he put in place. So discriminating against same sex couples seems to contradict multiple clear commands in the Bible, including a command that is supposed to take precedence above all the others:

Mark 12:28-34

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

This seems pretty clear. Loving God and loving your neighbor are the most important commandments. Since it would be hurtful for you to be refused service for your beliefs or personal characteristics, aren’t you breaking the second most important commandment by treating others in a way that you yourself would not want to be treated?

As for Christian business owners who were fined for discriminating: They broke the law of the land and were punished for it. This is exactly what the Bible says will happen in the Romans passage I quoted above. Of course lawbreakers will be punished, that is God’s plan according to this passage.

Unless the government is telling you to marry someone of the same gender, stop worshiping God, to murder someone or to personally commit another specified sin, I don’t see how these Christians are justified in refusing to comply with the law. Scripture is very clear on this issue- obey authority and treat your neighbors how you would want to be treated. If you think these verses doesn’t apply to you, then perhaps the verses allegedly condemning homosexuality don’t apply to our loving same sex marriages either. 

No trolling, please! Genuine dialogue for the purpose of mutual understanding is appreciated; debates are not. General comments are welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s