Religious Freedom Revisited
Well, it seems as if the next round of the culture wars is off and running. After the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex-marriage in the entire country there has been a spate of “religious freedom” laws passed or expanded upon. North Carolina and Mississippi are the two most recent examples and Georgia nearly was but the governor vetoed the effort.
The essence of these laws is that we should be allowed, in the name of the free exercise of our faith, to not serve anyone or do any duties that violate our (Christian) principles. To do so, it is argued, would make us “complicit” in something that we see as sin. Opponents say that this is just a thinly disguised way to allow us to discriminate against others, namely LGBT people. They cite the dictionary definition of discrimination, namely: “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people.” Let’s think about this for a minute.
I’ve commented before that religious freedom is not a biblical concept. Nowhere in Scripture does it even hint that we will have complete freedom to exercise our faith as we see fit. You can make a better argument to say that the Bible promises this will not be the case. So this is not a difference about understanding the Bible (although there are competing understandings) but about understanding how to apply the Constitution and in particular the First Amendment.
It would be hard to argue that these religious freedom laws do not produce discrimination as the dictionary defines it. At best, defenders of the laws say that these laws are “not about discrimination” and that, sadly, the over-riding principle of the right to practice our faith just happens to produce results that might look like discrimination. Or, to put it another way, my right to practice my religion trumps your right to not be discriminated against.
It is rather easy to imagine worst-case scenarios of exercising religious freedom. Does a Muslim taxi-driver have the religious freedom to refuse to take a fare to a Christian church service? Does the desk clerk at a hotel have the right to refuse to allow a couple to check in unless they prove they are legally married? Does a bank teller have the right to refuse to let someone withdraw money if they know that person will gamble or drink it away? In other words, can a third-party supplier of goods or services ever be complicit in the actions of another and, if so, when? They probably can if they know that this will lead to an illegal act but what if it is something perfectly legal that we don’t approve of?
In our culture there are a lot of things Christians disagree with. For most of them we’ve adopted something akin to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. We know that couple renting an apartment from us is not married but we don’t talk about it. This is what makes the whole religious freedom law issue, which clearly and specifically focuses on LGBT people, hard to accept. I simply cannot call it anything but discrimination and struggle reconciling this with the Jesus I see in the Gospels.
The way Jesus loved others was defined by radical inclusion, particularly of people that were deemed to be sinners. There is no evidence that he thought eating with them,or even healing them, made him complicit in their sinful lifestyle. His example makes it clear that serving our neighbors does not make us inherently complicit in their actions, sinful or otherwise.
Even if I could proof text the idea that LGBT people are “living in sin” there is nothing in the life of Jesus that gives me the right to treat them as second class citizens. Being disciples of Jesus is defined by sincere love, not sincerely held religious beliefs.