The controversy a few weeks ago over Indiana’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has touched off an argument about the role of claims of religious conscience in relation to anti-discrimination laws. Some Christian business owners would object to serving at a same-sex wedding, but in some jurisdictions they could be sued for refusing, if their refusal violates an anti-discrimination statute. This kind of dispute highlights a tension between two principles that most Americans approve: non-discrimination, on the one hand, and religious liberty, on the other.
Those who have come down hard against any right of the Christian business owner to decline service in this context have argued that the same claims of religious conscience were made by people trying to preserve the system of racial discrimination in the 1960s. I think this comparison is imperfect in a lot of ways, but here I will just focus on two points.
First, those who make this argument are trying to maneuver those on the other side into an untenable position by raising a different issue on which hardly anybody disagrees. If you think a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) business owner has a right to refuse to serve at a same-sex wedding, then you must also believe that a person raising a religious objection to serving, say, blacks should also prevail and be free to engage in his discrimination. So the argument goes.
The problem is that either side could make this kind of argument. If you totally embrace the principle that those who presume to provide a professional service must never discriminate, and that claims of religious conscience cannot be entertained as grounds for refusal, then presumably the law can require, say, a Catholic doctor to perform an abortion. I suspect, however, that hardly anybody on the left side of the Indiana dispute would want to push the argument that far. Accordingly, the dispute cannot be settled reasonably by either side by appealing to such extreme analogies.
Second, there is a very big and rather obvious difference between those who may have claimed religious reasons as a basis for not serving blacks in the 1960s and those today who would claim such a basis for not serving at a same-sex wedding. That difference is the sincerity of the belief in question. Presumably, not even the American hard left is prepared to assert that claims of religious conscience are to be given no respect whatsoever. If they are to be considered by the law as a possible excuse, then you are going to have to consider whether they are sincere or just a rationalization for behavior that the person wants to engage in for other reasons. Once you make that inquiry, however, it is not hard to see that the Christian baker (or photographer, or florist) today is not really in the same position as the lunch counter owner in the 1960s who did not want to serve blacks.
The Bible does not clearly require the races to be separate. Southerners who made his argument had to strain themselves to find passages in the Bible that they could press into their service, and they were not convincing even then, because they did not live as if they really believed them. American racists, after all, were actually quite prepared to live with and interact with blacks, as long as they could do it from a position of superior power. The unavoidable conclusion is that mid-20th century American southerners were Christians whose minds had been warped by a system of segregation that they had inherited and that they wanted to preserve for self-interested reasons, totally irrespective of their religious beliefs. When they appealed to religion, they were rationalizing.
This is clearly not the case with Christians today who object to same-sex marriage. The idea that marriage is a union between a man and a woman is not one that some Christians invented within recorded memory, just so they could exploit gays. It is rather a clear teaching of Christianity, a core idea that has been present from the beginning. Christians believe that the first example of a marriage in the Bible is the relationship of Adam and Eve. When Jesus spoke about marriage he noted that God had created human beings as “male and female.” The idea that this is the nature of marriage has been essential to Christianity from the beginning. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that when a Christian objects to being made to serve at a same-sex marriage, he not just rationalizing but is in fact concerned about living according to his ancient beliefs.
I don’t know whether anybody on the left will find this a sufficient ground for leaving such Christians alone and not making them serve at ceremonies they cannot believe in. But I think anybody should be able to recognize that this kind of claim does not deserve to be classed with the religious rationalizations of racists.