Angst About Religious Liberty in America

The litigious assault on bakers, florists, and photographers who have convictions against serving same-sex wedding planners is a sad cause of much angst these days. Noticing this, Frank Bruni of the New York Times devoted his Jan 10 column to reassuring readers that gay activism is no threat to religious liberty. The very idea is "absurd," he claims, and little more than "a fig leaf for intolerance." Anyone actually concerned is the victim of "cynically engineered" confusion "about the consequences of marriage-equality laws."

Bruni surely knows cynical engineers are equal opportunity exploiters. But never mind that, there's no ground for concern. Just because the courts have "been siding so far with the gay couples" who are suing to coerce these small business owners does not mean religious liberty is at risk:
marriage-equality laws do not pertain to religious services or what happens in a church, temple or mosque; no clergy member will be compelled to preside over gay nuptials. Civil weddings are covered. That's it.
Glad to have his promise on that. Now what about the devout at work in their own businesses--do they enjoy similar protections?
Baking a cake, arranging roses, running an inn: These aren't religious acts, certainly not if the establishments aren't religious enclaves and are doing business with (and even dependent on) the general public.
Oh, I see.
I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish--in their pews, homes and hearts. But outside of those places? You must put up with me, just as I put up with you.
As Bruni sees it, the liberty of conscience and religious speech only pertain to what happens in worship services conducted in recognized religious spaces by clergy, and in the privacy of their homes and hearts. Citizens are not protected from government coercing them to act contrary to their respective religious community's long-established and peaceably-held moral convictions. In public, the devout must put up and shut up--which seems to be what some same-sex activists are demanding.

But the accused small business owners don't seem to have a problem putting up with gays and lesbians. At least one couple employed an openly gay man, surely most of the accused served gay and lesbian customers without issue in the past, and I suspect they were trying to serve the ones who ended up suing them when they were confronted with a personal moral dilemma. They did not "exile gays and lesbians" as Bruni claims, they only balked at providing a particular good or service when doing so meant participating in what they are convinced is an offense to God.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was recently asked about this issue in Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty journal:
The issue at hand is whether or not the state has the power to coerce someone to participate using his or her creative gifts to celebrate something that that person believes to be deeply sinful. . . . I think there are tremendous implications from that not only for Christians, but for everyone.
Admittedly, providing a good or service is not always the same as participating in the activity for which it is procured. Yet in some cases it may be a way of participating in or endorsing the activity. The moral question for these bakers and florists turns in part on whether supplying a wedding cake or flower arrangement in celebration of same-sex wedding ceremonies is such a case. That's a question to take up in another post.

Assuming it is, however, Moore draws a helpful analogy:
What about a Christian web-designer? Should he or she be forced to design a website for a pornographic company? It's legal. So should that person's conscience simply be run over in the process? I think that if the answer to that is yes, we have a society that is less free.
Many people would reject this analogy, however, because they view homosexuality as just like race or gender. There is, they believe, a fundamental difference between refusing to participate in legally permitted immoral behavior (producing pornography) and discriminating against people who happen to be homosexual (or Arab or female). This view now prevails and is the reason why conscientious objectors to same-sex weddings are finding little favor in the courthouses and market places of America.

We do not have to agree with those who refrain from serving same-sex wedding planners to feel the sting of being denied the right to refuse as a matter of conscience--a sting that smarts with economic persecution.

So, should we be anxious about the apparent erosion of religious liberty in America? God forbids it--literally. Not because the crusade is sure to soon sputter out--this may well be just the beginning. And certainly not because Bruni has given us his word that same-sex activists will leave the devout alone at church and at home--his narrow construal of religious liberty is chilling and promise of peace unconvincing. No, we must not be anxious because our hope is in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. He is for his own and ordered this to his glory and our saving good, and he promises to stand with us whatever comes our way, even in death itself. To be anxious is to forget that Christ has overcome all things, to act like those who have no hope. In hope we must keep baking, arranging, and serving the good of all people until he returns--as far as our conscience, ruled by his word alone, allows.