Symbolic defeat for a Christian business in Maryland

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After spending more than a week on the road, I returned home — as always — to find a large stack of ink-stained dead tree pulp that needed to be sorted a read. I refer, of course, to all the back issues of the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

As you would expect, The Baltimore Sun folks are in full-tilt party mode with the advent of same-sex marriage in this very blue, very liberal Catholic state. Each and every one of these one-sided stories was precisely what one would expect, in this age of social-issues advocacy journalism in the mainstream press.

There was, however, one interesting page-one piece that sounded a slightly somber note. More on that in a minute.

Throughout the election season, leaders of the gay-rights movement argued, and thus The Sun religiously emphasized, that the legislation legalizing same-sex marriage would not require clergy and religious organizations to perform these rites. Of course, no one ever suggested that this was the issue in the first place. Opponents of the bill tried to debate its impact on the work of religious non-profit groups, such as schools and social-welfare ministries, as well as ordinary religious believers, of a traditional-doctrine bent, whose careers are linked to the marriage industry.

It was almost impossible to find local coverage that took any of those issues seriously — DUH! — what really mattered was that clergy and their religious flocks would not be forced to perform these rites. Nothing to see here in conscience-clause land, so move along.

This division between religious liberty in sanctuaries and religious liberty in public life is, meanwhile, the key to our nation’s debates about the Health and Human Services mandate, the rights of military clergy, etc., etc. The high court has not addressed any of the big issues linked to this, but could soon — including the undecided question of whether homosexuality is a condition that leads to special-protection status under civil rights laws.

Anyway, about that sobering A1 story about a highly symbolic local business, which is led by a traditional Christian:

An Annapolis company whose old-fashioned trolleys are iconic in the city’s wedding scene has abandoned the nuptial industry rather than serve same-sex couples.

The owner of Discover Annapolis Tours said he decided to walk away from $50,000 in annual revenue instead of compromising his Christian convictions when same-sex marriages become legal in Maryland in less than a week. And he has urged prospective clients to lobby state lawmakers for a religious exemption for wedding vendors. While most wedding businesses across the country embraced the chance to serve same-sex couples, a small minority has struggled to balance religious beliefs against business interests.

Wedding vendors elsewhere who refused to accommodate same-sex couples have faced discrimination lawsuits — and lost. Legal experts said Discover Annapolis Tours sidesteps legal trouble by avoiding all weddings.

“If they’re providing services to the public, they can’t discriminate who they provide their services to,” said Glendora Hughes, general counsel for the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. The commission enforces public accommodation laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, sexual orientation and other characteristics.

And where, precisely, were those public-accommodation laws passed? Is that local, state or national law? This is crucial information that readers need to understand the legal debate that is raging around that issue. Plenty of cities, and some states, have added sexual orientation to these laws, but others have not.

Late in the story, The Sun team did offer some information about that crucial side of the issue, after talking to Frank Schubert, an opponent of laws that redefine marriage. A direct explanation of the state law shows up at the very end of this long report.

“This is exactly what happens,” Schubert said, adding that religious liberty is “right in the cross hairs of this debate. … The law doesn’t protect people of faith. It simply doesn’t.”

Schubert pointed to a handful of other examples publicized in news reports across the country of wedding vendors sued for refusing to accommodate a same-sex ceremony: a pair of Vermont innkeepers, a New Jersey church group and a New Mexico wedding photographer.

A Christian conservative group financed an appeal in the case in New Mexico — where same-sex marriages are not recognized but, as in Maryland, “public accommodation” laws prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. A lesbian couple tried to hire the photographer for their commitment ceremony, but the photographer’s attorneys argued that artists have a constitutional right to refuse to endorse a message they do not support, according to the Religion News Service. Two New Mexico courts have sided with the lesbian couple who sued, and the state’s highest court agreed to hear the case.

As of now, the homepage for Discover Annapolis Tours still shows a picture of a bride stepping off one of its vehicles, but that will soon change. As the story notes, the law will affect very few businesses — simply because there are few religious believers whose convictions would require this act of conscience.

Meanwhile, long after the issue has been settled at the ballot box, The Sun team did offer some solid information representing the losers’ point of view. The key, of course, is that the legislature may be asked to protect the rights of this tiny minority of religious traditionalists in the business world.

This leads to, well, people like the owners of Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A.

Owners can often face business decisions that conflict with their beliefs, according to a consultant who works with Christian businesses.

“When they’re confronted with something that they feel is against the Bible and against God’s words, our first advice is to think through the process to determine if it really is against your core values,” said Ken Gosnell, president of the C12 Group of Central Maryland, a Christian business consulting group. …

“Many businesses often quit selling a product or offering something, often because it no longer matches the core values of their company,” Gosnell said. “If it doesn’t match their core values, whatever it is, then they should quit doing it.”

Christian businesses, he said, frequently choose to offer better employee benefits and to follow ethical business practices because of their beliefs, though sometimes it also means taking risks.

All in all, this is a pretty good report, with lots of voices representing the Maryland majority and a few representing the traditional Christian minority, symbolized by trolley operator Matt Grubbs.

The bottom line: This would have been a very timely hard-news story — about a year ago. You know, back before the election.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • sari

    This is not just non-timely news, it’s non-news. For a long time religious believers have abstained from one occupation or another on the grounds that doing otherwise would violate their religious beliefs. No one required their employers to make accommodations, then or now. But when religious Christians feel they’re stepped on, that’s news. The journalist should have contrasted the current situation with the historical to give perspective. Is the issue suddenly relevant only because it involves Christians?

    • Kodos

      Hi Sari:
      I’m not convinced that your argument is one that compares apples to apples. Religious believers have historically abstained from certain occupations because the occupation itself was considered sinful, but in these cases it’s not the occupation that is considered sinful. Instead, these religious folks are bothered that they are being forced to give blessing to and promote through their occupation what they consider to be sinful behavior. What is problematic for them is that their morally neutral occupation is being used to support something they consider immoral.

      To shift the issue in order to illustrate my point: I doubt that few people would find anything morally objectionable about running a T-shirt printing company. But would anyone – especially anyone on the left end of the political spectrum (the ones who are filing these current lawsuits) – insist that a T-shirt company be required to print a batch of shirts for the local Ku Klux Klan? Shouldn’t the owner of the T-shirt company have the freedom to decline that order or religious or moral grounds?

      I’ve seen graphic design companies with disclaimers of this sort: “We reserve the right to determine whether the production of a client’s artwork is consistent with the values of our company”. Or bars or restaurants that post a sign like: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”. Will these gay marriage lawsuits, if successful, make these kind of disclaimers illegal? Or are private businesses like these legally considered to be “public accommodations” that cannot discriminate against verbally abusive patrons, the Klan, or homosexuals?

      • sari

        “I’m not convinced that your argument is one that compares apples to apples. Religious believers have historically abstained from certain occupations because the occupation itself was considered sinful, but in these cases it’s not the occupation that is considered sinful. Instead, these religious folks are bothered that they are being forced to give blessing to and promote through their occupation what they consider to be sinful behavior. What is problematic for them is that their morally neutral occupation is being used to support something they consider immoral.”

        I disagree, and if the press had paid attention to such folks, you would, too. Many Orthodox Jews, for instance, refrain from certain occupations because they might inadvertently lead another Jew to sin (e.g., non-kosher food service), lead the person to violate Jewish Law (e.g., working on the Sabbath), or expose the person to things which are inappropriate (e.g., scantily clad women). Such people self-limit rather than make concessions to or condone a culture that they perceive to be immoral or, at least, dissonant with their own belief system. It’s not a matter of sinful occupations but of choosing those which will allow the person to live within the Halakhah -and- generate income. It also means that much of the observant community is chronically underemployed, because few employers care to accommodate them.

  • tmatt

    Valid comment, of course.
    The key is that for millions of people marriage completely bridges their work and their faith. The most complex and important example, legally? Marriage counselors.
    The only safe place is inside church doors — that’s the message. That’s a change in how America has viewed the free exercise of religious freedom. The press needs to cover the debate early and often.

  • Mike

    … TMatt, I’ve noticed your employer is actively involved in this issue, including participation in at least two of the cases. Don’t you have an ethical obligation to disclose that, even as an advocacy journalist?

  • tmatt

    MIKE:

    I will certainly mention that — as I do with Scripps — when we are dealing with coverage of a CASE the CCCU is involved in. Will the CCCU file in some way related to the Supreme Court case? If so, I will mention that in coverage of the action at the high court.

    But millions of Americans are now involved in religious groups and faiths whose futures are tied up in these cases — which is kind of the point. All of the GetReligion folks have openly discussed our religious backgrounds many times and they are in print in our bios.

  • MJBubba

    Kodos, the T-shirt company in Lexington brought up your KKK example when they protested the GLSO complaint before the local human rights commission. The Commission replied that the gays are a protected group under the ordinance but the KKK is not.
    “Marriage Equality” sets up the homosexuals as a protected class. The ramifications of that are the part that TMatt is discussing, and he is entirely correct when he points out that having a cheerleading media that is on one side of the issue has left this element out of the public discussion. It only gets talked about in conservative niche media.
    The Lexington T-shirt story: http://www.kentucky.com/2012/11/26/2421990/city-rules-hands-on-originals.html
    The charge of discrimination: http://media.kentucky.com/smedia/2012/11/26/17/31/ykgO1.So.79.pdf#storylink=relast

  • Corita

    One interesting detail, to me, is *how* the story broke. How *did* it go to the papers? A poster above seems to suggest it was the business owner himself. But I recall reading in the story that one of his potential clients was so incensed by the owner’s email telling him his stand on gay marriage that the potential client himself contacted the media.

    If that is true, that is another interesting aspect of the story; perhaps it is a story itself. Why is this news, exactly? Whose news is it? Does the incensed client feel satisfied with the news coverage or was he hoping for more outrage?


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