|Hindus in India celebrate Diwali by lighting lamps in the shape of a swastika.|
It seems that while Christians are dying for their faith all over the world, the United States of America is embroiled in a national debate about whether or not it is legal to force Christians to bake a same-sex 'wedding' cake. The conflict isn't just about cake. It also involves flowers, pizza and other commodities. It's a strange debate to be sure, but oddly enough, probably one of the most significant in our nation's history. The basic gist of it goes as follows...
A homosexual couple wants to get 'married'. So they approach a Christian baker for a 'wedding' cake. The Christian baker politely refuses to make the cake for that occasion, citing religious reasons for her objection. She will make any other cake for them; a birthday cake, a baptism cake, a bar mitzvah cake, even a blank cake which they can buy and decorate themselves. However, for this Christian, baking and decorating a cake for a same-sex 'wedding' would actually be participating in what that Christian believes to be a mortal sin. It violates her religious beliefs, and moral sensibilities. So she refused. In turn the homosexual couple sued her for discrimination. They won in court, and the Christian baker was forced to bake the same-sex 'wedding' cake or face thousands of dollars in fines. Rather than violate her religious and moral beliefs, she shut down her bakery.
The national debate that has erupted over this, and similar cases, is one that pits civil rights against religious rights. However, one could say that 'conscience rights' are really what is in question here. What it comes down to is the right to deny service, when a business owner feels that his/her conscience is being violated. So it would seem, the real issue that is being debated is whether or not business owners have any rights at all once they decide to operate a business publicly.
On the one hand, we have the civil-leftists who argue that civil rights trump all other rights, and that business owners have no right to deny service to any paying customer, no matter what. They argue that by allowing some people to deny service, for whatever religious or moral reason they cite, will inevitably lead to institutionalised racism again, in the form of racial segregation or what have you. Therefore government should get involved immediately to stop this 'dangerous trend'. On the other hand, we have civil-libertarians who say that a business owner is the sole proprietor of his financial property, and therefore has the right to refuse service to anyone, for any reason, or no reason at all. The consequences of his discrimination will be played out in negative public attention and loss of business. The government should not get involved, and lawsuits should be denied.
May I suggest here that what we have is a case of political hysteria on both sides. Sadly, the whole thing is being fuelled by special interest groups, who usually benefit from such hysteria in the press and in the courtrooms. May I suggest here that allowing a Christian baker to refuse making a same-sex 'wedding' cake is not tantamount to institutionalised segregation, and at the same time, business owners do have a social contract with the public to not discriminate against customers based on some commonly accepted social standards. To illustrate my point, I'm going to use a hypothetical situation, which could really happen...
Suppose a Hindu couple, husband and wife, walk into a Jewish bakery. The couple asks for a very special cake to be made for their young Hindu son. The cake will mark a particular religious rite of passage. The cake will be white, with a red trim. On the top it will adorn a big swastika, similar to the image above. Now the Jewish baker is obviously a little disturbed by this. He politely tells the customers: 'Look, I'm sure this symbol has some special meaning to you, and that's your business, but you have to understand my people have suffered greatly under a symbol identical to this, and it causes me great distress to make this design. I will have to decline your request.' In addition, this particular Jew might also feel uncomfortable making a religious symbol for what he believes to be an idolatrous religion, but he courteously decides not to mention that. The Hindu couple leave the store quite distressed, because this bakery was the only bakery for miles around.
What should the Hindu couple do? How should the public, and the government, respond to this obvious case of discrimination? Should the Hindu couple sue the Jewish bakery? Do they have the right? Should the court then force the Jewish bakery to bake and design the cake they requested, or else face steep fines?
What I've done here is change the players and the design of the cake, but the situation is IDENTICAL to the case of a Christian baker who wouldn't bake a same-sex 'wedding' cake, or a Christian florist who wouldn't provide flowers to the same occasion, etc. The question is, where does a customer's civil rights end, and the business owner's civil rights begin?
I'm going to offer my opinion here, which comes as both a Catholic Christian and an American citizen. I believe a customer's civil rights end when the customer demands that the business owner violate his conscience to participate in an act the business owner deems immoral or distressing. In the case of the gay couple, as in the case of the hypothetical Hindu couple, the persons of the homosexual and Hindu are not being denied service because they are homosexual or Hindu. What is being denied is a particular kind of service. It is the kind of service that is being denied, not the person being served. Forcing a devout Christian, or a devout Jew, or a devout Muslim for that matter, to bake a same-sex 'wedding' cake is a very distressing thing. It causes the Christian, Jew or Muslim baker to violate his conscience by participating in an act that goes against his/her religious beliefs. It is no different than forcing a Jewish baker to bake a Hindu swastika cake. Some Jews might do it, but others might not. It doesn't matter who would do it, and who wouldn't. What matters is the conscience of the people who wouldn't. The question is, do we live in a society that legally forces people to violate their conscience? And, is that really the kind of society we want to live in?
Even the very conservative Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri have not been immune from this national debate. Recently, in the City of Springfield, a civil rights ordinance, passed by the city council, was put up for repeal by the voters in a city-wide referendum. The ordinance dealt with issues related to this. Even though a recent civil-rights commission found no evidence of discrimination within the city, the ordinance was passed anyway, giving the city sweeping powers to force businesses and schools to comply with anti-discrimination laws for homosexual and transgender persons, in a way that could violate the consciences of many people. The local Catholic bishop urged Catholics in the city to vote 'YES' in favour of the repeal of this ordinance. This was based on advice from his lawyers who informed him that the ordinance posed a significant threat to Church operations within the City of Springfield, as well as threats to local Catholic business owners and local Catholic schools. Many local Baptist, Pentecostal and Evangelical pastors also organised their church members to turn out and vote 'YES' for the repeal as well. The 'YES' campaign won by a very narrow margin, even though it was radically outspent by the 'NO' campaign, and the ballot language was confusing. In this case, the real victory was for small government, because repealing the ordinance prevented the city government from gaining more intrusive powers that it did not need and could not afford. The cost of enforcement of this ordinance was calculated to be very high. The State of Missouri already has strong anti-discrimination laws, and so does the City of Springfield. By repealing the ordinance, the city just reverted back to how the law was before the ordinance was passed, which was plenty strong enough.
In chatting with some supporters of the ordinance, I used the hypothetical Jewish baker and Hindu customer to make a point. I actually ran across one supporter of the ordinance who said that Jewish bakers should be forced to bake swastika cakes if Hindu customers ever request them. He then volunteered his rationale as to why he thought this. He said it was to 'avoid discrimination'. While I completely disagree with his conclusion, I must admit that his rationale was at least consistent. If avoiding discrimination against any customer's unusual or controversial request is the goal of our society, then yes, Jewish bakers should be forced to bake swastika cakes. But I don't agree with him! Why? Because I disagree that avoiding discrimination against any customer's unusual or controversial request should be the goal of our society. Should a black baker be required to bake a Confederate flag cake? Should a Catholic baker be required to bake a cake commemorating the Protestant Reformation?
So I must ask, if in the name of avoiding discrimination, we force Jewish bakers to bake Hindu swastika cakes, are we not committing some other kind of discrimination? What about discrimination against the Jewish baker, who is being forced to do something he finds morally reprehensible? The answer of some in our society would be to simply tell the Jewish baker that if he cannot follow city anti-discrimination codes, than he can no longer do business in our fair city. So now Jews can't do business in our city? For some, that's what it comes down to? It's not the Jewish baker's fault that some German politicians used that symbol to slaughter his people more than half a century ago. Just like it's not the Christian baker's fault that his religion teaches that same-sex 'marriage' is a sin and he/she shouldn't participate in it. The fact of the matter is, any society that forces Christian bakers to make same-sex 'wedding' cakes, is the same society that forces Jewish bakers to make swastika cakes. The swastika may not mean anything bad to the Hindu couple that requests it, but it may mean something horrible to the Jewish baker who is legally forced to design it. The same goes for the same-sex 'wedding' cake. It may not mean anything bad to the homosexual couple getting 'married', or the people attending the 'wedding', but it may mean something horrible to the Christian baker who is being legally forced to design it. I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in a society that legally forces people to violate their consciences. What becomes of a society when business people are no longer allowed to have a conscience? What are the long-term social effects of this? Perhaps history might hold some answers for us. Maybe somebody ought to look into that.
What is even more troubling is our society's move toward redefining religious liberty. Currently, religious liberty means both 'freedom of worship' and 'freedom of conscience', but these cases regarding same-sex 'wedding' cakes and other similar matters, are seeking to drop 'freedom of conscience' from religious liberty. The idea is to limit religious liberty to just 'freedom of worship'. What is being said is that we are free to worship however we want, within the four walls of our church buildings, but outside of those four walls, we must conform to the standards and morality that our society and government tell us. It is, in effect, an attempt to limit God to chapels and cathedrals, but outside of those buildings, God's commandments are 'void where prohibited by law'.
I think the solution is common sense. If we want to live in a multicultural society, than the particular sentiments of each culture must be respected. Jews and Muslims should not be legally forced to handle pork products or bake swastikas. Christians should not be legally forced to participate in what they believe to be sin, and homosexuals should not be legally forced to agree with any of this. At some point the conscience of everyone has to be respected. In general commerce, discrimination against persons should not be tolerated, whether that be because of race, colour, sex, creed, or what they do in their bedrooms. However, business owners should simultaneously not be required to participate in acts they find objectionable to their consciences. In other words, people cannot be discriminated against, but actions that violate conscience can be. I think that's a reasonable solution for a reasonable society. Sadly, it seems our society and governments are moving in a direction that is becoming increasingly unreasonable, and this I find not only unfortunate, but also potentially dangerous.
Shane Schaetzel is a published author and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'
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