Aaron Klein has found himself in a peculiar position. He is the owner and operator of Sweet Cakes, a bakery in Oregon. He has religious objections to homosexual conduct. When a woman attempted to purchase his services for her wedding to another woman, Klein refused to participate. Now he finds himself under investigation by state authorities, the target of vitriolic, self-parodying anti-hate campaigns, and facing the prospect of choosing between his business and his conscience.
The discussion of “Human Rights Commissions” assuming the role of thought-enforcers is a discussion for another post. The stories are more common in the UK and Canada, but this is not an isolated incident in this country.
Is our society one in which a private citizen is compelled to do business he not only does not choose, but to which he actively and conscientiously objects?
Supporters of laws like these often point to the civil rights era for moral authority. Then, private citizens refused to serve blacks. Invoking its powers under the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress passed civil rights legislation that forbade discrimination in all places of “public accommodation.” There’s a long and complex legal history about what counts as “state action” for constitutional purposes—the Constitution generally restrains the government, not private citizens. It’s settled now, at least among the courts, that the public accommodation designation passes muster. In the end, we were unwilling to rise to defend the right to be vile, whether or not such a right exists.
So, the argument goes, people like Klein are no better than the racist store owners in the South who had separate lunch counters. And it’s just as important for the government to intervene to prevent such gross mistreatment. The comparison is powerful and hurtful and requires an answer. Is what Klein did akin to saying “We don’t serve your kind here”? Separate and apart from whether he has the right to make this choice, as I believe he does, we must ask whether it is right for him to do so.
We know that it’s wrong for any person to treat another as though they were of lesser moral value; equal human dignity is a noncontroversial proposition. As Christians, the urgency of this duty is heightened by recalling that there is One who has such a prerogative—He really is of higher dignity!—who deigned to sit amidst our sinful company. There is no justification for us to treat anyone as inferior, even those who have committed horrific crimes. But even as Jesus walked among us and communed with us, never did He commend, promote, or facilitate sin.
(Note: The story contains a disputed rumor that he called the lesbians an “abomination.” That would be wrong in two ways. The first problem is that it’s exactly the sort of unkind treatment we must avoid. Second, even ignoring the difficulties in parsing Old Covenant laws, the text says that the act is an abomination, not those who participate in it. This only reinforces the earlier point about how we are to treat one another.)
If, instead, a lesbian co-worker had invited Klein to her birthday party, it’s difficult to imagine on what grounds he might have refused. “Not comfortable around” is not a justification: it is loathsome evidence of sin’s lingering presence. The image in our minds must always be that of the second person of the Trinity dining with tax collectors.
This is a rather fine point to put on it. But like our Lord, we must love this fallen world while taking care to eschew its “wisdom.” Just like the rest of us, our gay neighbors need loyal friends and caring mentors and all the rest of the spectrum of human relationships. It is to the Christian’s shame when he refuses to associate with a fellow sinner because of the specifics of the other person’s sin. For us, the easy question is whether we have the right to do what Klein did. We do; indeed, we have the duty. The hard question, the one we must ask ourselves, is whether we invoke that right with a wicked heart.