They are big on free speech and religious freedom in the United States and, because of the past treatment of blacks, sensitive and resistant to all forms of discrimination. However, they face the same dilemma that all tolerant democracies face — as we did in reconsidering Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act — which is to craft a balance between upholding individual freedoms on the one hand and rejecting discrimination on the other.
Recent events in the small town of Walkerton in Indiana illustrate the dilemma. The facts of the case have been in the news but, briefly, they are as follows: Indiana was in process of passing a religious freedom law not too different from a similar federal law signed by Bill Clinton and laws in place in most other US states. The law basically gives individuals and businesses a legal fallback (a better chance in court) if they object to being compelled by the government to do something against their religious beliefs.
I don’t want to go into the details of the law which has since passed, but only after being amended. Perhaps some of those details, such as bringing businesses specifically into scope, which (I understand) the federal law doesn’t, caused particular objection. I don’t know. It was roundly opposed by gay and lesbian lobbies, by assorted leftists and, eventually, by anyone in business afraid of a commercial backlash; by the usual suspects.
Back to Walkerton; where an out-of-town reporter, microphone in hand, and spotting Christian symbols on the walls of Memories Pizza, asked Crystal O’Connor (aged 21 and innocent in the ways of reporters) whether she supported the proposed law. She said that she did but would serve pizzas to anyone; unfortunately adding that she wouldn’t cater for a gay wedding because that would conflict with her religious beliefs. She and her father, who jointly own the business, didn’t know what hit them. The internet and social media have made the generation and delivery of hate mail ultra efficient these days; but it was the constant ringing of their phones with false orders that forced them to close.
We shouldn’t feel too bad. Already Glenn Beck has set up an account for donations to support the couple. At the last count I saw it had passed one million dollars. And, if the Hobby Lobby case is any guide, many Christians and others of goodwill (gays among them) will rally to the cause. I would guess that people will be queuing up to order pizzas when the business reopens. The venomously strident among gays and lesbians and the ratbags of the left will soon tire and find another conservative Christian to go after.
It is difficult to find the right balance between freedom and opposing discrimination. It seems to me, in this case, that it would have been better if Ms O’Connor had said that she would sell and deliver pizzas to anyone, even if they are attending a gay wedding. But it is a matter of judgement, which I will come back to.
If you have a common-or-garden business on the High Street it is (I think) unconscionable and should be illegal to refuse service purely on the basis of a customer’s race, religion or sexual orientation. This, of course, would still allow refusal of service to those exhibiting socially untoward behaviours, even if those behaviours were somehow associated with their race, religion or sexual orientation.
Some might say that the owner of a business should have an unfettered right to serve or not serve whoever he or she likes. I don’t agree. Obviously a Greek club might only let Greeks join. A gay bar might only let gays in. I see nothing wrong with that. But, in the generality of cases, the social harm and personal hurt of discrimination outweighs property rights.
I want to come back to what I called a matter of judgement. It goes to a comment I heard from someone on the left who said that Christ had interacted with a prostitute and a tax collector (the latter despised at the time among Jews because they worked for Rome). He was seeking to make the point that it was un-Christian to discriminate. There is, however, a difference between interacting and participating.
Let’s leave aside the highly unlikely possibility that people, gays or straight, would want pizzas for a wedding reception. If you provide pizzas are you participating in the ceremony? That, as they say, is the question.
People surely have a right to refuse to participate in an activity which goes against their religious beliefs. Certainly ministers of religion must be free to decide whether to officiate at a gay wedding or to offer their churches. That is clear enough. But, how about those providing run-of-the-mill wedding and reception venues; or those taking photographs; or those providing cars, or flowers, or catering, or wedding cakes? Is that participating? Where does participation start and stop? I don’t know.
To me, sending pizzas, or providing cars or flowers, or taking photographs, or providing a venue isn’t exactly participating. And it is a bit overboard to make too much of putting same-sex figures on top of a wedding cake. However, that is my judgement call; others might make a different call.
People of strong religious convictions might well be uncomfortable with providing any commercial support at all to an activity which offends those convictions. They might consider that they would, in fact, be participating in an ungodly activity. It is problematic to try to make them do that by the use of legal force or even through (civil) social pressure. It is contemptible to try to make them do that by spewing hate and threatening their livelihoods.