Janie and Charlotte on Religious Liberty #4

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.

Janie B. Cheaney img_3556


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.

CVC photoCharlotte

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?


18752_264889995821_7228191_nJanie 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. Intersections logoShe is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

11 thoughts on “Janie and Charlotte on Religious Liberty #4

  1. A few thoughts…

    Yes, the bible talks about marriage between a man and a woman. It does not, however, say that is the ONLY valid marriage model. If you’re going to argue that the bible’s approval of one model means anything not mentioned is invalid or sinful, then it is time to turn off your computer, sell your car, and get rid of your refrigerators. The bible talks about means of transportation, such as by horse, dinky or walking…those are thus approved, and anything else is not. It speaks of papyrus for communication…there’s no mention of computers. And food storage is also discussed, with no mention of refrigerators or electricity for that matter.

    In other words, a LACK of mention is not condemnation.

    Leviticus is the root of every other mention of homosexualuty in the Bible. And the words we claim in later books must refer to homosexual relationships don’t. They usually are the words for prostitutes. Even so, we fall back on “if a man layeth with a man…”

    Here’s the thing, though…the root of this, Leviticus, are a bunch of laws compiled for health reasons. People got I’ll or died when they are shellfish, probably due to allergies as we have today. They got rashes when fibers were mixed. They likely got salmonella when mixing dairy and meat thanks to no refrigeration creating a breeding ground. They got trichinosis when eating under cooked pork.

    And they almost certainly got sick after engaging in homosexual activity…not because it was sinful but because there were no antibacterial soaps to wash with. Fecal matter, yeast infections…both are problematic when you have no actual concept of germs or how to combat them.

    So the religious leaders….the directions of whom people were conditioned to follow out of fear for their mortal souls…had a very handy tool in Leviticus to keep people from dying.

    But the need for those restrictions no longer exist…we know about allergies, refrigeration, cooking pork, caring for fabrics and yes, how to wash our hands and use condoms and get checked for disease. These things no longer pose the risk they once did….yet somehow, we’ve managed to set aside all of those rules except the one that makes evangelicals feel icky.

    It’s funny how that works…

    1. Rae, it seems you’re adding a lot of interpretation here. The theme of Leviticus is not personal hygiene (though that certainly has a place); it’s holiness. “You are to be holy, for I am holy and I have set you apart from the other peoples to be my very own” (Lev. 20:26). God did not lead his people out of Egypt to become a model of sanitation. I agree that a lack of mention is not necessarily condemnation, but the positive statement of Jesus about marriage consisting of male and female shouldn’t be overlooked. It sounds like a clear definition to me. Added to that are the many strictures on sex (which nobody likes!), and the creation mandate, and some obvious biological facts, and we have to ask ourselves 1) what’s God’s purpose for sex? and 2) does he have any interest in what we do with our bodies? I believe he does, since he made them, and I have no business second-guessing what he really meant when it seems clear enough.

  2. Janie, you might want to study history a bit more. Same sex marriages have occurred in the past. Reading John Boswell’s books, the history of Native Americans, and more would provide information of how same sex marriage has been recognized in the past.

    1. Mike, I’m a bit skeptical of modern interpretations of historical realities. I have no doubt that long-term same-sex relationships existed in various cultures in the past, but whether they were recognized as equivalent to heterosexual marriage is doubtful. At the very least, all cultures at all times have valued childbearing and legitimate progeny–Periclean Athens, possibly the most “gay-friendly” culture of all time, would have laughed at the notion of same sex marriage. The boy was for pleasure, the wife for an heir.

  3. So I feel the need to make a factual correction here. The Kleins are on the hook for “$135,000 in emotional damages” not because they refused to bake the cake, but because they released the personal information of the couple online. Those “emotional damages” are the death and rape threats the couple received after filing suit on the Kleins.

    1. From Janie: Anthony, you are correct–I looked up the information and it appears that Aaron Klein shared the entire complaint of the Bowman-Clyers against the business, including their personal information, on his FB page. Given the vicious elements swirling around the Internet, that was a thoughtless, unChristian thing for him to do. We’ve all got a ways to go here. Unfortunately “death threats” are so common as to be almost meaningless–I’ve received them myself. That’s no excuse, and yet $135K in damages seems out of proportion. I still contend that the Bowman-Clyers were refused service in this particular case NOT because they were gay, but because the bakers thought they would be somehow sanctioning an official act (a wedding) that was contrary to their beliefs.

      1. Okay, so two different things, one statement and one series of questions:

        1) a death threat isn’t “meaningless” if it reaches the point of harassment. The fact that their address was released made the possibility of the threats being carried out significantly more possible. Credible death threats ought to be taken seriously by law enforcement, and should never be dismissed as “meaningless.” Even if you are able to brush such a thing off, not everyone can feel safe under such circumstances.

        (I wasn’t planning on questioning your analysis of the Klein case, but since you bring it up…)
        2) How is the Kleins refusing service because they would be sanctioning an official act different than refusing service because they are gay? Do they refuse service to divorced people getting remarried? (You addressed divorce parties, but not remarriages) Interfaith couples? Interracial couples? (Those are also addressed Biblically, as I recall) Or do they simply not ask? (If I recall the Kline case correctly, they actually changed their minds about baking the cake when they discovered it was a same-sex couple based on the names, since it was one bride and her mother in the shop, not both brides. So it might be that there are other ceremonies they would refuse to sanction if they delved into the privacy of their customers.)

        Certainly, I can see refusing to sanction an official ceremony, but if the ONLY official ceremony that you’re likely to refuse to sanction is one between same-sex couples, then how is it substantively different from refusing service based on their orientation?

        1. Anthony: You’re right–I shouldn’t treat death threats so cavalierly. It’s just that “death threats” are hardly ever real death threats–not like “I’m seriously coming to kill you,” but more like, “I wish you were dead but I’m not going to do it.” They’re another example of the devaluation of language and common courtesy in our society.
          Re: your other point, I get that you don’t understand the distinction, and to many it will seem far too fine. Of the three examples you gave of problematic weddings (besides same-sex weddings), I’ll just say this: 1) there’s disagreement among conservative Evangelical churches about remarriage after a divorce. Some say never, some say it depends on who was the “guilty” party, and some say if the guilty party repents it’s okay. 2) Interfaith marriages are strongly counseled against, both in the Bible and in present-day churches. But if it happens, the marriage is still a marriage, not considered illegitimate. 3) Interracial marriage is not an issue in scripture (see Moses’ Cushite wife), though some fringe churches have tried to make it one. What we’re seeing with Same sex marriage is something that’s never happened before, EVER, with strong scriptural strictures against that form of sexual expression (at least, if you read scripture the way it’s traditionally been read). My understanding is that the Kleins had always sold cookies and cakes to gay customers. So they didn’t refuse service because somebody was gay, but because somebody was getting married to someone of the same sex.

          1. Yes, that distinction is a hair too fine for me to split. But I recognize that you and others are arguing in good faith when you do so. I’m looking forward to the rest of your discussions.

  4. These conversations are fantastic – please continue them!

    Rational well spoken people who make cogent reasonable arguments? Yes, please.

Comments are closed.