THOMAS: Humility, balance needed in freedom of religion, speech
In Arizona has come a test of the motto conservative Christians like to invoke: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has vetoed the “religious freedom bill” passed by the Republican legislature. While there is no mention in the bill of same-sex marriage, or even homosexuals, most people believe same-sex marriage and homosexuals were the targets of the proposed law.
Proponents asserted Senate Bill 1062 was written to protect the “free exercise of religion” for businesses and their employees. U.S. citizens already enjoy that protection under the First Amendment, but the bill’s backers believed that further protections were needed due to the aggressive posture taken by many gay rights advocates pushing for legal and societal approval of same-sex marriage.
In her veto announcement, Gov. Brewer said, “Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value — so is nondiscrimination.”
Sometimes these values are in conflict, as with the Arizona legislation and the Obama administration’s attempt to impose its contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act on Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor.
There are legal challenges to religious conscience in other states, including New Mexico, where a photography company refused to take pictures at a gay couple’s civil-commitment ceremony and Oregon, where a bakery refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. After protests, that bakery closed its storefront, only to re-open almost immediately as an in-home bakery.
Clearly, conservative Christian values are under assault in today’s culture. But two other points should be made. One is the danger when one’s faith is forced on people who do not share it. The second is that people who don’t share those religious beliefs err when they seek to force people of faith to embrace their beliefs and practices. Balance and humility ought to be pursued by both sides.
Let us recall our history. Religion was once wrongly used by some to condemn interracial marriage. In some churches, the Bible was misused to justify countless forms of discrimination against African Americans. Women, too, were thought by some Christians to be inferior to men and, therefore, it was believed just to deny them the same rights and privileges enjoyed by men. The Bible was sometimes employed to keep women from voting, establishing credit or owning property. Women were to be “submissive” to their husbands, thereby inhibiting their demands for the vote and their calls for gender equality.
The biblical thing to do for the Oregon cake business was to bake the cake for the gay couple. If businesses can refuse to serve such people based on the religious beliefs of its owners or employees, they wouldn’t be in business very long.
Then there’s the flip side. Should Muslim women be forced to go without their bodies and heads covered because an employer of another faith demands it? Should a Catholic priest be required to marry a divorced couple, if he abides by his church’s fundamental tenets? You see where this can lead? Virtually every decision about competing interests requires that one belief will be “discriminated against.”
There is a higher law and it incorporates grace and mercy. When offered the opportunity to condemn “the woman taken in adultery,” Jesus, faced by her angry accusers, bent down and started to write in the dirt with his finger (John 8:2-11) before saying, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Slowly the crowd drifted away. After the crowd was gone, Jesus turned to the woman and asked:
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, Lord,” she replied.
“Neither do I condemn you,” he declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Conservative Christians should not be in the condemnation business, but in the restoration business.
The Christian bakers who refused to bake the cake might have used their opportunity to tell the gay couple about the God who loves them more than they could ever love each other. That would have been a proper — and biblical — exercise of their faith and religious freedom under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.