It’s worth noting that the authors of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights felt the subject of religious liberty important enough that they addressed it succinctly in the first 16 words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” before moving on to the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Since its ratification this has meant that at times one right has bumped up against another; laws and court interpretations are necessary to help us find a balance, which brings us to Indiana.
When the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was adopted and signed into law late last month in Indiana, the backlash against it was swift, some of it coming from this state. While lawmakers and Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence denied the legislation was meant to give businesses the right to discriminate against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the public interpretation of the law understood it to be just that. The owners of one pizzeria in Indiana said they considered the law the authority they would need to refuse to sell pizzas for a reception following a gay wedding.
Indiana lawmakers, bowing to public opinion and corporate threat of boycotts, have now amended the law to specifically prohibit businesses from using the law as a legal defense to deny services, goods, facilities and accommodations based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service.
The issue is also being addressed in Washington state where a Richland florist, who refused to provide floral arrangements for the wedding of a gay couple, was last month fined $1,000 for violating the state’s anti-discrimination law and ordered to provide services for same-sex weddings in the future. Barronelle Stutzman, 70, has appealed and maintains that she is being bullied into accepting something that goes against her faith.
Some will argue, including many Christians, that Stutzman and the pizzeria owners are not being required to go against their faith and beliefs; they are being asked to provide a service, which doesn’t imply they approve or disapprove or those requesting flowers, cakes or pizzas. It requires them, as someone offering their service to the public, to provide that service without discriminating against specific members of the public.
But here’s where each individual’s discretion ought to consider why James Madison and the other authors of the Bill or Rights put the free exercise of religion first.
The growing number of states where marriages of gay and lesbian couples are now legal has come about because of the overwhelming change in understanding and public attitudes about same-sex relationships, not because the laws were changed first and the majority required to accept them.
Lawsuits over such discrimination shouldn’t be filed without a compelling reason. Unless health or safety are involved or a service isn’t readily available from another more appreciative source, then the florists, bakers and pizzeria owners who object should be left to do without that customer’s patronage.
Non-discrimination laws are there to protect the rights of all, but where they clash with religious beliefs some understanding and tolerance on our part provides a good buffer and a chance for opinions to change.