To the dismay of many, including family and friends, I am on record supporting religious liberty and conscience rights for socially conservative business owners that do not wish to help celebrate same-sex marriages.
I am not saying they should discriminate. But I am insisting that they are not “just like racists.” What I believe is simple: To the greatest degree possible, the state should not coerce people into violating their consciences.
Over the years, I have found that it is unpopular to defend these people. And yet my advice to them is that, for their claims about religious freedom to be credible, they should discriminate more — not less.
When individuals cite religious beliefs as their defense for refusing service to gays and lesbians but only apply that scrutiny to gays and lesbians, they may not be acting out of religious conviction, but out of anti-gay sentiment.
Putting business owners and government clerks aside for a moment, consider the case of clergy. Many clergy, whose participation in a wedding is inherently and explicitly religious, exercise discretion in which marriages they will solemnize. Many evangelical pastors, for instance, decline to officiate at weddings where the couple has cohabited. If the couple is not at all committed to what evangelicalism teaches about sex and marriage, the pastor reasons, why should I help them celebrate a “religious” marriage? To use an unpopular word, the pastors discriminate.
The same is true for clergy in many traditions and in many situations. Now, even gay rights supporters and advocates will allow clergy to opt of out gay weddings on religious grounds. But the principle of discrimination is somewhat analogous for others involved in the marriage process but who may have religious objections.
One of my problems with Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue a marriage license to a legally qualified same-sex couple, is that she was evidently untroubled by all kinds of morally questionable situations about which people might cite religious beliefs. She singled out gays for discrimination. To my knowledge, she never turned away second cousins, divorcees, or gold-digging young women marrying octogenarians.
I’m not saying that she should have latitude to decline in these (or any) situations. But if she had expressed moral reservations about other kinds of relationships that allegedly violated her conscience, her religious liberty claim may have had more merit.
In my view, a similar principle can apply to socially conservative wedding vendors. If you can point to a history of discriminating against more than just gay couples, then I might be willing to accept that your objection is actually more about religion than simply being anti-gay. If you think marriage is a sacred covenant of vital importance to church and society, then you have probably seen a few couples over your years in business that you did not want to do business with.
This is why I rejected the religious liberty claim of an Idaho couple that owned a wedding chapel. They got scooped up by a premier evangelical legal defense group, which argued that their consciences were being trampled upon by the government. But the proprietors were happy to do all manner of secular weddings, even on hot-air balloons. So I doubted the sincerity of their “deeply held” religious beliefs about marriage.
Socially conservative florists and bakers should at least have the wherewithal to think through the ethics of lending their craft to wedding ceremonies and couples that do not bear witness to the sanctity of marriage. If a gay wedding customer approached a Catholic florist who said, “My faith informs my beliefs about marriage, and so I only provide services for proper Sacramental marriages with Masses,” I would be more inclined to accept her religious freedom claim.
On the other hand, if a gay customer goes to a photographer whose last gig was a Halloween cosplay wedding of a thrice divorced 91 year-old billionaire to his 20 year-old distant cousin and gets a lecture about how his religious beliefs about the sacredness and dignity of marriage prevent him from taking pictures at a modest same-sex wedding in a church, then I would have questions about the depth and sincerity of his so-called religious beliefs.
In the end, the anti-gay wedding vendor can ultimately say he believes that marriages involving divorcees, distant relatives, or mail-order brides are, in fact and after all, marriages whereas same-sex unions are not and never can be. That is one position a person could take. It just isn’t very convincing.
Paradoxically, the more a wedding vendor discriminates against straight couples, the more we should tolerate his decision to discriminate against same-sex couples.