Christian businesses and conscientious objection

The legalisation of gay marriage in New York comes into force on July 24AP

One of the principle arguments often used in favour of gay marriage was that the change in the law would affect no one other than gay couples who wished to be married.

"If You Don't Like Gay Marriage, Then Don't Get Gay Married," was the slogan displayed on one branch of Manhattan Mini Storage.

Yet, in the US at least, sections of the gay community are not content with merely getting married, but actively want to push everyone else into accepting it.

The most recent example of this is the case involving the Portland bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of the Sweet Cakes bakery. They refused to provide a wedding cake for Rachel Cryer and her wife-to-be Laurel Bowman because they took a religious objection to gay marriage.

Oregon recognises gay marriages licenced in other states, but legally binding same sex marriage licences cannot be acquired there. Despite this, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries still ruled that the Kleins' refusal to provide a cake for Cryer and Bowman's service is "unlawful discrimination".

The Kleins aren't the only ones. Jack Phillips, a Christian baker from Denver, Colorado, was recently told by a local court that he is required to bake a cake for the wedding of Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

And it isn't just bakers. Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, two Christian photographers from New Mexico were told they had to photograph Vanessa Willock's 'Commitment Ceremony' with her lesbian partner.

Wedding venues owned by Christians are also under attack. Betty and Richard Odgaard, the Mennonite owners of a bistro in Iowa, were sued after they refused to host the wedding for Lee Stafford and his partner Jared.

The Odgaards' bistro, the Gortz Haus was a 77-year-old church building and Mr and Mrs Odgaard describe themselves as actively involved in their faith community. They have said they would be happy to serve Jared and Lee in any other way, but not in the way of hosting their marriage.

"It just comes down to that final line of taking their vows in our facility," said Mrs Odgaard to the online news service Blaze.

Should Christians be forced into participating in services they fundamentally object to? Were this a case of an individual refusing to attend a gay wedding they had been invited to attend, it would be a different matter. Individuals have freedoms that allow them to believe and behave according to their own values and principles.

But because these are individuals acting through their business, there is a different legal standard applied to them, and they are held responsible before the law not as individuals but as economic entities.

"Isn't this right and proper?" many pro-gay marriage secularists may ask. Indeed, do we want to return to the days of old, as when shopkeepers were allowed to put odious signs on their doors saying 'white only'?

There is however an important distinction. In none of the cases mentioned here are services being denied because those requesting them are gay. They are being denied because they are services contributing towards a gay marriage ceremony.

This is a subtle but vital difference. Had the Kleins or Mr Phillips been approached by a gay or lesbian individual who asked them to make a birthday cake, they would have obliged.

It is not the fact of anyone's sexual orientation that is being objected to, rather the nature of the event and the understanding that participation in it amounts to endorsement.

In that sense, there is, firstly, a question of the First Amendment to be invoked. It prohibits any limitation on the "free exercise" of religious belief.

There is no qualification in that statement to suggest it applies somehow more to individuals out of the workplace than in it. To force businesses to provide a good or service against something they cannot in conscience accept on religious grounds is to violate the First Amendment's understanding of freedom of expression.

There is, secondly, freedom of association to consider. That was a right guaranteed by the case of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama.

Just as the people of the NAACP had the right to associate freely without fear of persecution, so Christian business owners should have the right to withdraw their association with gay marriage if they so wish.

It is of course the case that, for example, a supermarket owned by Christians should not be able to deny food to a gay or lesbian individual. There are times were equal provision of goods or services is absolutely right, most especially where it relates to a fundamental need.

However, there should be some room for flexibility and the expression of personal preference. Bowman and Cryer would have preferred that the Kleins baked their cake; the Kleins didn't. Both sides should have been able to co-exist in society. The Kleins could continue practising their faith; Bowman and Cryer could still have a gay wedding with a cake sourced elsewhere. As it turned out, the Kleins were forced into a corner and eventually closed down their store.

Hateful and proactive discrimination is different from principled and polite withdrawal of a service, particularly where this has been made in the knowledge that the service can be provided elsewhere by those with no conscientious objection.

It has never really been explained why Christians should be forced to do that which they fundamentally object to, and why discrimination cases always seem to work one way., run by Oxford University Press, defines discrimination as "the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people", with unjust defined as "not based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair", and prejudicial as being "detrimental" or "harmful to someone or something".

It's hard to see how withdrawing a service or good that is desirable, but not essential, fits these definitions.

Yet the issue looks here to stay, and it isn't only to do with gay marriage either. The Hobby Lobby retail chain, owned by a Christian family, is in a legal battle to prevent being legally forced to provide preventative birth control to its female employees.

Contrary to what many have reported, their objection is not based on the consequence-free sex this will enable the employees to have, but is in fact based on the pill, and other preventative contraceptives like it, allowing for the destruction of fertilised egg cells.

Since the Christians in charge of Hobby Lobby believe that life begins at conception, their belief is that these pills could result in the destruction of human lives.

Organisations need to be able to defend themselves against these kinds of situations. They need the freedom to be able to demand that they not be forced to participate in that which they cannot in good conscience agree to.

While all freedoms have the potential to be abused and there may be genuine cases of unjust discrimination, that isn't enough of a reason to curtail religious freedom completely. To make America more free, and for a better free world more widely, the principle of religious freedom should be applied to businesses in the same way it is to individuals.

The alternative is to force people, at legal gunpoint, to go against their consciences. The consequence will inevitably be the unnecessary closure of businesses.

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