Should a born again Christian who runs a catering business have to provide the food and drinks at a gay wedding? Should an evangelical who operates a photography studio have to take pictures of a gay marriage? Should a baker have to deliver a cake to a gay couple’s wedding if same-sex marriage violates her religious beliefs?
By now, these are old, even tired, questions. And reasonable people may disagree on all of that. Personally, I believe that when you open up a business on Main Street you have to serve the general public.
But I understand the other side. So, for the moment, let’s move beyond the catering, and baking and taking pictures at gay weddings.
Let’s deal with everyday matters.
Let’s say, an evangelical Christian runs a bakery and thinks homosexuality is a sin – and doesn’t want to serve openly gay customers at all. We’re not talking about baking cakes for their wedding here. We’re talking about selling them doughnuts.
I know that if this happens at all, it’s rare. But the current debate, sparked by Indiana’s law, raises questions that the politicians don’t want to answer – questions about where religious freedom truly ends and gay rights begin.
When George Stephanopoulos asked Indiana Governor Mike Pence flat out, “Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays or lesbians?” – the governor couldn’t bring himself to say either yes or no. A simple yes or no, he must have figured, would be too risky. Either way, he’s going to offend some group that votes. I always liked Mike Pence, but he’s no profile in courage.
And while I know this is far-fetched, let’s say two gay guys holding hands walk into a diner owned by a conservative Catholic or a devout Muslim who frowns on men dating men. What if he thinks this is an affront not only to him, but also to God? What if he doesn’t want to let them eat at his lunch counter?
Every politician I’ve heard since the Indiana law became news says something like, “We just want to protect religious rights – but we’re against discrimination.” Translation: I’m trying to appease both my conservative Christian base and the vast number of others who think gay people should have all the rights granted to everyone else in this country.
I’m not suggesting we live in a country where business people routinely turn away openly gay customers. But the current debate seems only to be about the rights of people of faith when it comes to big things – like weddings. What about the small things? What rights may people of faith claim in everyday business matters?
When I’ve written about this before some of you wrote to me saying, “It’s my business and I can do whatever I want.” No you can’t. Not in America.
You can refuse to allow barefoot customers with no shirts into your restaurant. But you can’t refuse service to blacks or Jews or Muslims or women. You give up certain rights when you open up a shop on a public street. And that’s how it should be.
Still, some Christians think they’re under attack. They think they’re being forced to do things that violate their religious beliefs. They worry about heavy fines if they don’t cater that gay wedding.
But if business people of faith are allowed to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding, by what logic should they not be allowed to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple – period?
So, what if we had a law that specifically said business people may legally refuse to bake cakes or take pictures or cater gay weddings – in the name of religious freedom – but have no right to refuse service to gays for everyday dealings, like getting a photo taken or eating a meal or simply buying a cupcake. – in the name of gay rights.
Gays might not be happy about a businessman or woman refusing to cater their wedding. That’s understandable, but there will be other businesses that will gladly do business with them.
And some Christians won’t be happy knowing that if, for whatever hypothetical religious reason, they refuse more mundane service to gays, they could go broke due to heavy fines.
But, I think, such a law, with very specific language, might be a step in the right direction.
On the fundamental issue of gay marriage, most Americans are no longer against it. The polls tell us that a majority of Catholics and Jews support same-sex marriage. It's even supported by 62 percent of white mainline Protestants. But few black and Hispanic Protestants favor gay marriage. And only 28 percent of white evangelical Protestants do. So it's this relatively small minority the politicians worry about. After all, they're organized. They speak into a big megaphone. And, of course, they're are free to oppose gay marriage. But this split in the culture – this culture war over so-called social issues like gay rights -- poses a big problem for Republicans who want to be president.
Conservative Christian organizations don't care if they look like they're on the wrong side of history. Being on the right side of the Bible is all that matters to them. But Republicans cannot be seen as the party on the wrong side of history -- or they're finished. Politics is about tomorrow, not yesterday. Republicans don’t want to look like they’re behind the curve. And to many Americans, especially young Americans, that’s just how they do look.
That’s a problem they better deal with – and fast. They don’t need this hanging over them in 2016. By next year, they need this to be old news.