Janie and Charlotte were best friends in college. They still maintain a good friendship even though they have very different perspectives on politics, culture and theology.
This is the fourth conversation Janie and Charlotte have had about their different approaches to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty. See the first conversation here, the second conversation here and the third conversation here.
Charlotte asked Janie to respond to her blog: Letter to my Christian Friends Who Are Anxious About Your Religious Liberty.
Here’s where I agree with you:
Christ our Lord calls us to humble ourselves and not cling to our rights or goods or status; to take up a cross rather than wave a flag. Christians have done a lot of damage in the past—and still do—by yelling about perceived and actual insults. “They’re going to hate you because they hated me,” Jesus told us. It’s something we should expect.
Instead of wringing our hands over court decisions like Obergefell (even if we believe long-term results will not be good), we should roll up our sleeves and get busy showing love to our opponents the way we’re called to do. I’ve said so numerous times in my World columns and posts. I remember a distraught mother who emailed me in response to one of those posts, asking in essence why God allowed her daughter to come out as a lesbian. I replied that God is giving us an opportunity to “come out” as Christians, loving our problematic relatives, and even our enemies, by listening to them and serving them but also speaking truth to them.
“Speaking truth” is where the rub comes.
It’s heartening to read that 2/3 of Americans are opposed to discrimination. The problem is how you define discrimination. Please consider with me three specific cases:
- In 2013 Aaron Klein, co-owner with his wife of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Oregon, meet with Cheryl McPherson and her mother to discuss providing a cake for Cheryl’s upcoming wedding. Upon learning that Cheryl is engaged to another woman, Aaron informs her that the business does not do same-sex weddings. They have had no problem baking birthday cakes and cookies for gay customers but draw the line at weddings. To date the Kleins have paid $135,000 in emotional damages, mostly raised through contributions; otherwise their business would be kaput.
- Baronelle Stutzman owns Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington. In 2013 one of her customers, a long-time friend, asked her to design a special arrangement for his wedding to his male partner. Mrs. Stutzman explained that her conscience wouldn’t allow her to do that—though she’d be happy to design a special arrangement for his beloved’s birthday celebration, marriage had a deep religious significance for her and contributing to a same-sex wedding was too much like celebrating it. She recommended other florists, and they parted on friendly terms. A Facebook post from her gay friend came to the attention of the Attorney General’s office, and soon Mrs. Stutzman found herself on the receiving end of a lawsuit that could wreck her business.
- The Little Sisters of the Poor are an order of nuns and lay religious dedicated to serving the indigent elderly. A few years ago they were required to provide contraceptives to their female employees as part of Obamacare. The Catholic position on birth control is well known, but the Obama administration pursued the case with vigor. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in effect vindicated the Little Sisters, not by deciding in their favor but by deferring to a previous favorable decision from a lower court. That was seen as a victory for religious liberty but at a cost to the Little Sisters, who had to funnel time and resources away from their calling in order to defend themselves in court.
Christians are required to behave graciously to everyone and to be at peace with everyone, “so far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18). But there’s another mandate: “Teach whatsoever I (Jesus) commanded you” and “If you love me, you’ll obey my commandments.” Yes, there is disagreement over what those commandments are, and many Christians, even Evangelicals, don’t see the problem in baking a cake for a gay wedding. But is it discrimination not to?
Discrimination is denial of services because of personal bias. Conscientious objection is refusal to participate in an act or procedure that the objector sincerely believes to be wrong. The first stems from prejudice, the second from principle. Mrs. Stutzman and the Kleins never refused service to gays because they were gay, but they did object to a participating in a ceremony that God (as they understand him) forbids. The Little Sisters never forbade their employees to secure birth control in other ways, but they objected to providing something they believed to be against God’s will. The issue to them is obedience, not discrimination. I’ve read many comments from people who disagree with the reasoning, but who are they to define someone else’s conscience?
Whose rights are being violated here? If you’re planning a wedding with your same-sex partner, your baker or florist may be reluctant to serve you, but they’re not trying to stop you from getting married. That’s your right under the law. To my knowledge there have been no judges threatened or courthouses stormed by angry Christians trying to overturn Obergefell. Instead, we’re trying to figure out how to function in this brave new world without personal compromises of cherished beliefs.
You are the one who helped me understand this distinction and I am wiser for it. Now I understand that the issue with the baker or the florist is their personal belief that baking a cake or arranging flowers is a kind of participation in and approval of the marriage. It’s not that they are refusing relationship with gay people but that they refuse to be personally involved in the ritual of a marriage ceremony. I see that now. I hope the legal dust will settle on this issue sooner rather than later.
As I’ve said numerous times, historically our Courts have bent over backwards to accommodate conscientious objectors but there is a difference between accommodating explicitly religious institutions and business owners who happen to be religious people but who have chosen to operate their business in the public square.
In your examples above, the Klein’s bakery is located in Oregon and although Oregon law provides an exemption for religious institutions, it “does not allow private businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation, just as they cannot legally deny service based on race, sex, age, disability or religion.” Baronelle Stutzman’s case is more troubling to me because it is not her clients/friends who are suing her; rather it is the Washington Attorney General who intervened. To make her an example? Because of a Facebook post? Little Sisters of the Poor do wonderful work, agreed. But they still employ women who need and want contraception provided as part of their appropriate health care and whether the organization has a religious objection or not, the organization itself still could have negotiated a way for its employees to be fully covered. The Supreme Court attempted to force a compromise that would “accommodate the challengers’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by the challengers’ health plans receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.” Women need adequate health care; the compromises should have happened long before this ever reached the Supreme Court.
So here’s a completely different angle: I’m curious what these kinds of Christian business owners do when they are asked to bake a cake or arrange flowers for divorcees. As far as we know, Jesus never said anything about gay marriage but he did offer some pretty strong teachings on divorce and remarriage. Taking a stand against gay marriage but not remarriage is inconsistent. I would like to hear you address this question that many of us have asked.
Baking a cake for a divorcee would not be a problem, just like baking a cake for a gay man’s birthday party isn’t a problem, as the Kleins said repeatedly. Baronelle Stutzman also supplied flowers for her gay friend to take to his partner more than once. Baking a cake or supplying flowers for a divorce party would be a different matter. Divorces are not usually celebrated, so it isn’t an issue that comes up, but if a client walked in to my bakery and said, “I’d like a cake for my friend who’s celebrating her divorce,” I can well imagine a Christian baker saying, I’m sorry, but that’s not something I can congratulate.”
Certainly, there is a time to go the extra mile and turn the other cheek. Maybe Klein & Stutzman and others should have done that—or maybe they see themselves placed in a strategic position to force our society to make up its mind how we’re going to treat each other. I heard Christian social commentator John Stonestreet the other day exclaiming over our culture’s schizophrenia: Bruce Springsteen can “refuse service” to the entire state of North Carolina over his conscientious objections to its transgender laws, while a 71-year-old florist draws down the wrath of the state of Washington for basically the same thing. It’s not enough to say “Let the courts decide”: by God’s providence we live in a democratic republic with the ability to participate in the law-making process. That’s what test cases like Roe v. Wade were all about.
I’ve heard this comparison as well. My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) threatened to move our General Assembly out of Indiana during the RFRA kerfluffle. Here’s how I see this: Mr. Springsteen could have been sued for breach of contract. The Christian Church knew they might pay a price if they backed out of their contracts. That’s how this works. Taking a moral stand is very often controversial. Christian bakers and florists, religious non-profits, churches and denominations, even secular people can and do make moral stands based on principle and they should always understand that there may well be consequences. Christians of all people should know that whenever we walk in the way of the Christ.
Agreed–and the Kleins and Stutzmans, and others who have taken a similar stand, see what they’re doing as a consequence of following Christ. Does that mean they shouldn’t do it, or shouldn’t pursue legal standing? They are not seeking damages; they’re trying to avoid financial ruin and perhaps make it safe, or safer, for other Christians of similar conviction to follow their consciences in the future.
(One quick objection: of course Jesus said nothing about gay marriage because there was no such thing, even in the minds of pagans. He did quite clearly imply that marriage was between a man and a woman, Matthew 19:4-5).
I saw a disconnect in your open letter; maybe you can explain it. In the first paragraph you write, “What I truly don’t get is why some Christians are claiming their religious liberties are at risk.” Then you accuse some Christians of zero-sum thinking: of believing their rights are threatened when other some other group gains its rights (I don’t believe that’s the issue at all). And finally you draw a comparison between baking an extra cake and walking an extra mile, the latter referring to actual first-century oppression. But if as you say religious liberties are not actually being threatened, is that even an apt comparison?
Speaking of first-century persecution, no one took more of it than the Apostle Paul. And yet, when he had the opportunity to stand on his rights and avoid a beating, he didn’t hesitate (Acts 22:25). Nor did he hesitate to speak the truth even at great cost.
So, it’s . . . complicated. I do appreciate your thoughts, and I’m glad we’re having this conversation.
I will concede that there is some definite unfairness going on in this time of readjustment as we all try “to figure out how to function in this brave new world.” I’m sorry for the troubles that a few conscientious people are experiencing because of their faith. But I’m ever so grateful that so many other people are finally experiencing some of their long deprived civil rights. Our LGBT sisters and brothers still face discrimination in jobs and housing in too many communities. Just because they are gay, they still can be evicted or fired in some states because there are not enough legal protections in place. But the pendulum is swinging and I am glad we will never go back to how things were. In the meantime – yes – it is very, very complicated.
As for the apparent disconnect in my letter, I’m arguing that IF a person feels persecuted for their faith, THEN there is a fairly clear biblical principle on how to respond. Go the extra mile. Turn the other cheek. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… If a Christian reads the Bible so literally that they feel compelled to judge other people because of their sexuality, and if that judgment leads to legal and social consequences, (perceived as “persecution,”) then those believers should be held accountable to read these biblical texts literally as well and respond to said persecution as Jesus would. That’s what I’m saying.
But then, you’re right, I don’t personally believe these American Christians are being persecuted for their faith. What I do believe is that Christian privilege is being challenged in this cultural transition and some unfortunate business owners are getting caught in the messiness of change.
As you said so eloquently: Christians have done a lot of damage in the past—and still do—by yelling about perceived and actual insults. “They’re going to hate you because they hated me,” Jesus told us. It’s something we should expect.
There is real religious persecution going on all across the globe. There are Christians whose lives are in danger just because they wear the name of Christ. In my opinion, that is a much more convincing witness to faith than what I see happening in our current American culture. Using faith to protect oneself at the expense of another; using faith to claim the greater righteousness; using faith to judge and exclude any of God’s precious children should be challenged. It is not American. It is not Christian.
This is strong. I got wound up. I hope I don’t offend but I am passionate about how Christ and Christian faith are portrayed and I see the current Christian resistance as damaging witness to this faith and this Savior we both love. Your turn. Speak to my blind spots. I’m listening.
I thank you for listening, and I’m not offended. Again, I agree that these legal challenges don’t qualify as persecution. (Or not yet. It’s conceivable that pastors could be restricted from preaching and Christian schools and colleges prosecuted from teaching what they perceive as biblical truth, and that’s why we need to establish some legal precedent.)
Here’s something I read in many comments sections online: “Christians (meaning Evangelicals) only care about abortion and gay marriage.” This is a slander. Evangelicals are and have been at the forefront of many battles, including religious persecution abroad, world hunger, disaster relief, homelessness, generational poverty, human trafficking, substandard education, adoption, and so on. I would like to see a lot more involvement, but I would also like to see a lot more reporting—such as The New York Times story dated Sept. 6: “Evangelicals Ignore G.O.P. by Embracing Syrian Refugees.” Good for them! (both the Evangelicals and The Times) If some Christians are convicted that they must “love the sinner but hate the sin” (and I know that phrase is despised in some circles), they can fight that battle too, though they must be very careful about tactics. I think Evangelicals are in general getting wiser about tactics and more careful about picking their battles, and I’m thankful to God for it. But we can still be stupid and thoughtless. Please bear with us as we grope our way to amity.
Janie and Charlotte figure we have done about as much as we can do with this religious liberty topic. We’re considering what to talk about next. Any suggestions?
Janie B. Cheaney blogs at Gobsmacked by Life … sometimes
Janie has published six novels for teens. Her historical fiction is especially well done with solid research, engaging characters and great writing. Janie’s J.B.Cheaney Facebook page is a fun and helpful author resource.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.