Recently there has been a move in America for Christians to demand the right to avoid serving people with whom they disagree theologically. The claim is made that by baking a cake, arranging flowers, or being a photographer at a wedding for a couple who is marrying outside the Christian tradition, the Christian is breaking his religion.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at such an attitude.
First—the Christian is providing a service. A Christian electrical company cannot withhold providing electricity to those with whom they disagree. A Christian police officer cannot refuse to help someone with whom they disagree theologically. A Christian doctor, teacher, entrepreneur, shoe-shiner, butler, baker, candlestickmaker—all are providing either goods or services to the general public. Nothing is being done to affirm a decision. Their service is being done to provide equal and open access to the business to all who come and who pay the posted price.
This American value of an open marketplace is courtesy of a long struggle in America to grant all who live here their equal rights under the law. This stems, first, from our Constitution, which sets forth the idea that we are a nation founded by ourselves—“We the People of the United States.” Without any reference to Scripture or religion, we founded this nation.
Our Constitution and our nation was flawed, however, by its inclusion of slavery. Black Americans were held in literal chains for some 250 or so years, and their slavery was blessed and protected by the Constitution. It took a bloody Civil War, the deaths of a million Americans—North, South, white, black, male, female, adults, children—to decide that this was wrong. Three Amendments to the Constitution made it a fact: slavery was wrong, and all freed slaves were the equal of their white counterparts.
It took another 100 years for the promise of the Amendments to be made statute law, and in 1964 the great Civil Rights Act was passed, making it a law backed by a vigorous, energetic Federal government that we all have the right to work, live, eat, play, and die where we want to.
The Civil Rights Acts (plural), passed by Congress, signed by the Presidents, and affirmed multiple times by the Supreme Court, guarantee that in the marketplace the customer has the right of access. There is no right of free association that supersedes this right for free access to any goods or services.
Evangelical and conservative Christians have gone along with this for 50 years because everyone knows that “racism” is bad. And who would outright deny a brother in Christ his right to a job or a home or a meal?
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was the death blow to Jim Crow—Jim Crow being the official and unofficial policy in most places in the U.S. (including the North) where black Americans could not be safe in their own homes, be safe on the streets, have safe access to schools and transportation and residences, be secure in their liberties—and over the last 50 years we’ve ever-so-slowly been dismantling both de jure Jim Crow (such as red-lining) and de facto (such as red-lining).
It has been seen as a good thing, to give everyone the access in the marketplace to all goods and services. Laws that attempt to forbid one class of people to access a job, a home, a place to eat have been struck down, over and over.
It is settled law that the Constitution requires open and free access. The 14th Amendment declares this with its claims of “due process of law” and “equal protection of the laws,” and the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes it true as a law and accepted as a principle—the government may set the rules for how a business can operate. Just as a business cannot operate without (in most cases) paying federal minimum wage, so a business cannot operate without (in most cases) complying with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Section 5 of the 14th Amendment states clearly that Congress can enforce these rights by appropriate legislation.
Game over for the prejudiced and the non-compliant. There is no place to hide one’s bigotry within the skirts of the Constitution.
But now we have a great upheaval regarding marriage equality. Some Christians (not all!) feel that marriage should always be between a man and a woman. This is fine, and within the Christian church the wedding ceremony can be restricted to whom the church would authorize. As a church can withhold the marriage ceremony from those who do not follow its theology, the church can stop a divorced partner from remarrying within the church or stop a same-sex couple from marrying. It is a religious rite, within a religious, private building, and the church is exempt from laws about equality.
However, the wider world is not Christian and does not need to comport itself to Christian doctrine in anything. We live in a society ruled by our Constitution and not our Bible, our doctrines, our creeds, our dogmas, or even our sincerely held beliefs.
Christians today offer their services to the public as a business. A business is neither Christian nor non-Christian. It is just a business. It can be operated on “Christian” principles, but in the end, the customer must be treated neutrally—all who come to gain access to the goods or service must be treated equally.
Baking a cake is not a religious act. It is an act of cookery.
Snapping a photo is not a religious act. It is an act of documentation.
Arranging flowers is not a religious act. It is an act of decoration.
None of these acts “approve” a marriage anymore than providing electrical service or police protection or cleaning services “approves” a marriage. They are just services.
It is an extremely foolish, ignorant, and short-sighted thing to claim that one’s religious beliefs forbid them from providing services to weddings where two people are getting married in contravention of Christian teachings. We don’t have anywhere the same sense of scruples over people remarrying, of people “living in sin” before marriage, or of many other circumstances—we just keep our thoughts to ourselves and ask “Will that be a chocolate or vanilla cake?”
There is a great quote from Tertullian, who lived ca. A.D. 200. He was not a believer, lived a life of gross ignorance, watched the games where Christians were tortured and killed—and was convicted by the lifestyles of the Christians. He made this famous statement: “Behold, how these Christians love one another.” The literal, actual affection of Christians and their sacrificial love made an enormous impact upon him—and so he chose to follow Christ.
It was not a refusal to do business with non-Christians. It was not an assertion that Christians must be free to reject the non-believer. It was not an rejection of the basic humanity of all mankind. It was their positive reflection of the love of their Lord Jesus Christ.
We Christians (for I speak as a Christian in the Evangelical tradition) simply must ask ourselves “Why are we doing this? Why are we swallowing such a ginormous camel of intolerance in the name of straining at a gnat of entrepreneurship?” Who is ginning up this controversy? Who is stoking these flames of hatred and intolerance? What is their goal? Where will this end? And ultimately, what kind of witness are we showing the world at large of the love and mercy of God?