Religion and Freedom

One pizzeria in Indianapolis claimed it would not cater a gay wedding on religious grounds

One pizzeria in Indianapolis claimed it would not cater a gay wedding on religious grounds

Events in Indiana this week have created an emotional national debate about religion and freedom.  Conservative Christians claim that they should have the right to not offer services for gay weddings, on religious grounds.  Others argue that not serving gays is an act of discrimination that violates American values.  After all, opposition to interracial marriage and equal rights for blacks were also couched in religious terms.

Homosexuality is not a choice but a genetic predisposition according to both the American Medical Association and the American Psychology Association.   This means it is like being black – a part of who a person is, not a choice they have made.  More importantly there is a fundamental contradiction in the approach from the religious right.

Homosexuality is mentioned as a sin three times in the Bible.  Unlike adultery, theft, and covetousness, for example, it isn’t mentioned in the ten commandments.   In fact, most sins are talked about far more often than homosexuality.  In the Old Testament it’s in Leviticus, right there along side admonitions against eating shell fish or touching women who are having their period.  That part of the Bible also gives rules on how to treat slaves, and other clearly anachronistic laws!


Jesus does not mention homosexuality at all.  When Jesus talks about sin it’s usually in the context of forgiveness, and he warns his followers “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  Paul brings it up in Corinthians and Timothy, two letters where he lumps homosexuality with a number of other things — covetousness, drunkedness, trickery, etc. — as unrighteous behaviors.  Even that is a bit unclear since the Greek word being translated could mean masturbation, pedophilia or something more vague.

So if there were a hierarchy of sins, homosexuality isn’t high up on what the Bible worries about.  But there is no hierarchy of sins.  Christians universally agree that everyone is a sinner.  Therefore, singling out homosexuality as a special sin is anti-Christian.  A real Christian business owner recognizes every customer as a sinner, with each sin is of equal distaste to God.  Jesus didn’t turn people away because they were sinners, after all.  The only time he got mad was when the capitalists of his day were using the temple for business!

The only time Jesus gets really mad in the Bible is with the capitalists of his day!

The only time Jesus gets really mad in the Bible is with the capitalists of his day!

So clearly this is not really about religion, but bigotry.

Still, if we expected religions to actually live up to their teachings, we’d have quite a peaceful world.  Muhammad says don’t fight against people who do not want to fight, and that war should only be to defend the community as a last resort.  ISIS and Al-Qaeda are decidedly un-Islamic.  And how many people have been butchered in the name of Jesus?

So maybe that logical argument – that this is bigotry, not Christianity at work – sets the bar too high.  Maybe we need to accept that people are going to use religion to justify hate and bigotry.  Disappointing but, OK, that’s our world.  How much leeway should we give religious freedom if we set the bar lower?

I think we can agree that groups like ISIS who commit human rights atrocities can’t claim religious freedom.  The acts they engage in are crimes in and of themselves.  No one can hide behind freedom of religion to justify a crime.

But what about acts in the public sphere – you know, like a pizzeria catering a gay wedding.

Believe it or not, pizza is sometimes a choice for a wedding reception - and why not, it's the greatest food ever invented!

Believe it or not, pizza is sometimes a choice for a wedding reception – and why not, it’s the greatest food ever invented!

Libertarians might argue that any business should be able to buy or sell to whomever it wants.  That sounds good in theory, but in practice it can and in history has led to segregation and second class treatment for whole groups of citizens – those who went and saw the movie Selma this year know that!

Within the church itself, religious freedom usually trumps.  No clergy should be forced by the government to conduct a gay wedding.  Some liberal churches may require their clergy to do so, but that’s within the religion.  And if a church believes interracial marriage is wrong, well, they can refuse to conduct one of those too.

However restaurants, shops and other businesses that serve the general public do not have such leeway.  If you limit your customers with a rule – say, coat and tie required, it has to apply to everyone equally. You can also choose to refuse service on rational grounds – someone has disrupted a business in the past, counts cards against the rules, etc.  But you can’t choose to limit service against a group that suffers discrimination – race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.  There is some leeway for private clubs that aren’t completely open to the public, but even there it’s problematic.

Seen this way, the argument that this is some kind of “liberal fascism” makes no sense.  It’s just applying a principle that has been law for decades.  Just as it took until the 60’s for America to truly recognize the necessity of treating blacks as equal, it took until the early 21st Century to recognize the same about gays.

Perhaps the best argument for the religious right is a cultural one – religion is a defense of tradition; traditionally homosexuality has been seen as a perversion.  But the culture is changing.  Due to both science and evolved thinking we now consider that old view to be false – much like the view that said women shouldn’t vote, or blacks should be slaves.   When culture changes, religion has to give way – at least in the public realm.  Privately they can still argue for tradition. That’s unlikely to succeed, ultimately most religions will adapt.

  1. #1 by mikelovell on April 5, 2015 - 00:20

    “But you can’t choose to limit service against a group that suffers discrimination – race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.”

    So, merely out of argumentative state, maybe this needs to be clarified for me, but would this mean, that a fraternity or sorority at a school can’t deny a member of the opposite sex admission to the group?

    • #2 by pino on April 5, 2015 - 00:22

      a fraternity or sorority at a school can’t deny a member of the opposite sex admission to the group?

      My favorite is more to the point.

      Since women jouranlists are allowed in men’s sports locker rooms, why aren’t men journalists allowed inside women’s locker rooms?

    • #3 by Scott Erb on April 5, 2015 - 08:38

      That would be in the realm of a private club. They do have more leeway.

      • #4 by pino on April 5, 2015 - 10:32

        That would be in the realm of a private club. They do have more leeway.


        So, if a pizzarea joined a “clbu” they would have more leeway? How is a baker different than the Vikings?

    • #5 by James P. Melcher on April 5, 2015 - 19:35

      What Scott is getting at is a distinction that American courts have noted for years: the difference between a public accommodation and a private accommodation. A public accommodation is open to the general public–like a pizzeria, or a motel, or a supermarket–and protected categories in them (race, gender, religion. etc.) are protected in their right to use them by federal civil rights law. Sexual orientation is not such a protected category in federal civil rights law concerning public accommodations, though many states now do protect it. A private accommodation, on the other hand, which is NOT open to the general public, CAN exclude people as they see fit; the Supreme Court has held that they have the right to do that on 1st Amendment freedom of association grounds that come from the right to freely assemble. So, a private club–Augusta National Golf Club is the quintessential example–CAN say (even though I wish they would not) that they will not have black members (as they did for a long time, but not now) and that women could not be full members (which I think just changed a few years ago). The Supreme Court ruled about a decade ago that New Jersey law banning discrimination against gays and lesbians did not compel the Boy Scouts to allow an openly gay man (who had a stellar record in the Scouts) to be a scoutmaster on these grounds. So a fraternity or sorority can exclude people based on gender under the law; they’re a private accommodation, not a public one, since not everyone gets to join or use their services. Now, a college may make allowing a fraternity on its campus conditional on certain things–say, not discriminating according to race–but that’s a matter of the college’s policies and not of law.

    • #6 by James P. Melcher on April 5, 2015 - 19:41

      Now: could a pizzeria form a “pizza club” that only served pizza to its members? In theory they could–it would be kind of like the events at an Elks Lodge (private accommodation) are often limited to “members and guests of members”. That can work for a club with occasional events. That would be a pretty darned cumbersome model for a business that wants to sell to folks off the street at lunch and dinner every day, as most restaurants do, and you would also have to note in all of your advertising that it is only open to members and guests.
      I’d give such a “pizza club” about a week before they shut down.

      • #7 by Scott Erb on April 5, 2015 - 19:47

        Thank you, Jim – clearly you know your constitutional law well!

  2. #8 by pino on April 5, 2015 - 00:20

    Conservative Christians claim that they should have the right to offer services for gay weddings, on religious grounds. Others argue that not serving gays is an act of discrimination that violates American values.

    Both of these statements are valid. Christians have the right to deny service on religious grounds AND such acts violate American values.

    This means it is like being black – a part of who a person is, not a choice they have made.

    Not strictly true. Being gay is not immediately observable. Further, while the thought is utterly inhumane, the case can be made that someone born homosexual is not obligated to act on such urges or attractions. Again, such an idea is repulsive to me. However, it differs from the black experience for those two reasons.

    A real Christian business owner recognizes every customer as a sinner, with each sin is of equal distaste to God.


    those who went and saw the movie Selma this year know that!

    Only through the power of government was that possible.

    However restaurants, shops and other businesses that serve the general public do not have such leeway.

    Better said, ‘They do have such leeway, however, we have seen the slow erosion of their rights through coercive legislation.”

  3. #9 by lbwoodgate on April 5, 2015 - 09:17

    “Conservative Christians claim that they should have the right …”

    I think your forgot to add the word “not” between should and have, no?

  4. #12 by lbwoodgate on April 5, 2015 - 09:32

    The only two references attributed to God’s admonition toward homosexuality comes in Leveiticus, chapters 18 and 20. These two chapters are part of a “holiness code” imposed on the so-called chosen people that was expected of them if they wanted to be close to their God. It’s not actually a blanket condemnation to be used by Christians against non-believers of the faith and there’s nothing that prohibits them from doing business with non-chosen people regardless of their lifestyle.

    IMO, this is simply one more piece of Bible cherry-picking to cover the asses of homophobes whose understanding of the biological causes of one’s “gayness” is being obstructed by the religious right to garner support for any agenda they want pushed through the legislative process in this country to change this country from a democracy to a theocracy.

    Valerie Tarico has an excellent piece on this over at her blog site

    Unfettered Religious Freedom Really Does Mean the Freedom to Do Harm

    • #13 by Scott Erb on April 5, 2015 - 09:53

      Agreed! 1 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 6:9 also mention it, though these passages have translation issues and represent Paul’s opinion. Later in 1 Corinthians 14:33 Paul says: “As in all the churches of the holy one, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate even as the law says. If they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.”

      And of course when homosexuality is mentioned alongside other “sins,” such as being a liar. Since most religious conservatives do not take Paul seriously about women, and do not refuse service to liars and other sinners — they single out homosexuality — it is not about the religion, it’s about their bigotry.

      • #14 by lbwoodgate on April 5, 2015 - 12:07

        “1 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 6:9 also mention it”

        Yes, but these are just iterations of the original concept from Leviticus. Nothing new from God here because as you point out , it’s Paul’s view of the Mosaic law

  5. #15 by JT on April 15, 2015 - 08:51

    Matthew 7:1-3

    7 Judge not, that ye be not judged.

    2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

    3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

    It seems pretty clear to me what is going to and what is happening in Indiana now. 😉

  6. #16 by consultdom on April 20, 2015 - 12:37

    I’m so glad you wrote this article. I’m a small business owner in Palms Springs, a highly gay populated area in Southern California. I’m straight, and I’m a gay-friendly business, meaning I welcome any and all clients who wish to use my services. Sadly, “gay-friendly business” is an actual term we use frequently in this area (not sure if it’s common elsewhere?) to let people that all are welcome.

    On the rare occasion that I see homophobia, it’s with a twist – the homophobes are the patrons, not the businesses, and these patrons prefer not to patronize the many gay-owned businesses here in town because they believe the owners, the decor and/or the clientele are just a little “too gay”.

    I’m not talking about a gay bar, or other clearly gay-oriented business (which, by the way, always welcome straight folks or others from the LGBT community). It could be a dry cleaner some folks believe to be “too gay”. After seeing so many gays over the years treated shabbily by bigoted business owners, I won’t deny that I smirk just a little at the discomfort experienced by the bigots who do an about-face at a dry cleaners with loud pink and orange walls. It’s their right to patronize any business they wish. Or not. Oh, and to live in any city they wish. Or not.

    Having actually heard people say that this business or that was just “too gay” for them to stand made me want to ask them, in all seriousness, if they were afraid it would rub off on them. If, however, they are annoyed by affectation, then I can understand that as much as I can understand not wanting to patronize a Deli whose Brooklyn owner’s accent and loud voice is like nails on a chalkboard.

    I guess I just wish people would say what they mean. If someone’s voice bugs you, say so. If you complain that someone or someplace is “too gay”, then you’re an idiot and I don’t want to hang out with you. If, however, you say that our waiter’s theatrical affectation is getting on your last nerve, then we can go someone else for happy hour, and I’ll keep you as a friend on Facebook. Thanks for letting me share from the perspective of bigoted patrons.

  7. #17 by michaelhendrickson on June 28, 2015 - 19:55

    Please forgive me for being so late to this conversation, but I just stumbled across this blog, and I think there is something missing from the discussion spawned by this particular post. First, it was clear that these decent business owners were set up by a local television reporter, who asked them a hypothetical question about catering a wedding. They made it clear that, although they happily sell pizzas to anyone who comes into their shop, it would be a violation for them to participate in the setup and conducting of a gay wedding ceremony. Catering would make them a party to a private ceremony, and they should not be punished just because their conscience tells them not to be party to such a ceremony. This is a completely reasonable and defensible position. The nature of the response on social media makes it abundantly clear where the bigotry and hatred actually resides in this culture clash.

    As to your conception of Jesus as a guy who was all about forgiveness, it needs to be pointed out that this is a superficial distortion of reality. Jesus launched his ministry with the word repent. Sometimes his calls for repentance were so impassioned that his language was nothing less than apocalyptic in tone (e.g., his denunciation of the people of Capurnaum). So this is image of Jesus as the groovy, hippy forgiveness dude is seriously out the window. He was deadly serious about calling us to righteousness. Forgiveness is given freely, but it is impossible to be forgiven for a sin if you won’t acknowledge that it is a sin. And that is the only factor that makes homosexual behavior stand out as distinct from other sins in the present day.

    Finally, I think it should be obvious that Jesus did not speak about homosexuality, because it was not a topic that was even remotely controversial among the Jewish rabbis of his day. The law, which Jesus came to fulfill, was abundantly clear on the subject. By contrast, there was some controversy concerning divorce, so he was asked to share his views on the subject. Listen to his reply (Matthew 19).

    3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

    So in Jesus’ theology, gender is Good given (so much for transgenderism), marriage is between a man and a woman, and it is For who does the joining. To the Christian, a wedding is a sacred spiritual reality. We are taught in the new testament that it symbolizes the mystical union between Christ and his followers. We can’t in good conscience be party to a wedding that constitutes a rebellion against God’s institution of marriage. Many disagree with my position on this issue, but Jesus is clearly in agreement with me.

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