Human Rights

Should Christians be free to obey our conscience?

In recent years there’s been a worrying downward trend for religious freedom in both Canada and the United States. Examples abound of Christian T-shirt printers, bakers, photographers, print-shop owners, wedding dress makers, florists and caterers who are being forced – through human rights commissions, or through lawsuits – to participate in same-sex weddings in violation of these various business peoples’ consciences.

Each of these Christian business people said they would bake, cater, arrange flowers, print invitations, take photos, print T-shirts, etc. for a gay person’s birthday or retirement party or any other celebration – they just wouldn’t do it for a same-sex wedding (the only exception was the wedding dress maker, for obvious reasons).

This means the objection is not about discriminating against gay people. It never was. It’s very specifically about endorsing a definition of marriage or a specific act that fundamentally violates God’s design for marriage.

Stand up for others

I know of Christians who can, with a clean conscience, bake, photograph, etc. a gay wedding. And I know some who can’t (see 1 Cor. 8). This is a legitimate discussion to have between Christians. The much bigger question is: should the State force the latter group to do as the former?

If you are a Christian and you advocate that the State is justified in making Christians participate, in any way, in a gay marriage, I believe you’ve ripped the rug from under yourself – if it is fine for the State to violate other Christians’ consciences this time, what’s to prevent them from violating yours next?

If a Christian photographer has to shoot a gay wedding, does a church have to rent their hall for a gay wedding? (This happened in British Columbia in 2005). Or must an organist play for a gay marriage ceremony? Or will a Christian marriage commissioner be forced to officiate for such a celebration? (In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, this is the case).

Negative implications of the bill for Christians

Does this mean that I’m ready to let the State allow the same kind of discrimination against Christians? If an atheist decides he doesn’t want to take photos of a Christian wedding, am I okay with that?

Well, the State can’t force all citizens to embrace, encourage and support the Christian faith, because that wouldn’t be freedom of religion, would it? Freedom of religion is freedom from the State, and not from fellow citizens. Your Charter rights protect you from the busybody government interfering in your religious practices and beliefs. They are not meant to make the government interfere in your personal or professional relationships in order to promote, oppose or defend your religion.

So, to be clear and consistent, I do expect and accept being shunned by others because of my Christian beliefs. (Christ predicted it, didn’t he?) I would not expect the State to go to bat for me if a gay bookstore refused to sell my book on a Biblical understanding of gay-marriage, or if an Islamic school refused to hire me as a janitor. If I wanted to publish a Christian defense of capital punishment, I wouldn’t expect the State to force a Mennonite printer to publish it for me. With liberty comes responsibility. That includes responsibility to go find another printer, or baker or candlestick maker.

André Schutten is the General Legal Counsel, and Director of Law & Policy for ARPA Canada.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. ChrisB

    December 18, 2017 at 8:52 am

    Perhaps the topic of same-sex marriage is too hot for people to think clearly. Maybe we need an example from another direction.

    What if someone wanted a cake for a party celebrating an abortion. (I know, how sick would that be, but for the sake of argument …)

    Abortion is legal. Many people think it is a perfectly fine choice. But can you see how a Christian baker might not be able to stomach that? Should he or she HAVE to bake that cake despite personal beliefs that the act is abhorrent?

    • buddyglass

      December 18, 2017 at 4:19 pm

      One difference w/ the abortion party cake: “people who support elective abortion” isn’t a protected class. So I believe even under current law a Christian baker, or any other baker for that matter, would be free to refuse to bake that cake. The difference with same-sex weddings is that only gay couples have them. So refusing to make cakes for same-sex weddings, even if you otherwise serve gays, is considered to have a disparate impact.

      If I were going to argue against that logic, here’s how I would do it:

      1. Gays are a protected class based on the belief that homosexuality is an inborn and immutable trait. I’ll grant that. However,
      2. Same-sex weddings are only sought by sexually active gay couples; homosexuals who are celibate aren’t getting married.
      3. Christian bakers who refuse to bake cakes for same-sex weddings are refusing on the basis of behavior and not membership in the protected class, which is based on same-sex attraction. Ergo anti-discrimination laws should not apply in this case.

      The trick here is that there is still a disparate impact on gays from allowing Christian bakers to opt out of baking cakes for same-sex weddings. To that I’d respond: allowing bakers to refuse to make Nazi cakes has a disparate impact on white people, since most Nazis are white. I (and pretty much everyone else) is okay with that. How/why is the case of same-sex weddings and the gay community different?

      (One rebuttal to this argument might be: only a small minority of white people are Nazis, but a majority of gay people may some day wish to be married.)

  2. buddyglass

    December 18, 2017 at 10:03 am

    It’s easy to say “I’m willing to be shunned if you’ll give me the freedom to shun others” when you’re much less likely to be shunned than those others. Beyond that, I’d note that Christians, and all other people of faith, are already, and have always been, prohibited in certain ways from obeying their conscience. If your conscience says you must circumcise your daughter, sorry, you don’t get to do that. If your conscience says you must deny a lifesaving blood transfusion to your child, sorry, you aren’t given that option. If your conscience forbids you, as an agent of the state, from certifying the marriage of a mixed-race couple then you’re in the wrong job.

    Point being: there are competing rights, and “right to obey one’s conscience” doesn’t reign supreme. Especially given some people’s “consciences” lead them in some pretty disgusting directions. In truth, the government is incapable of forcing these bakers, florists, photographers, etc. to violate their consciences. What it can do, however, is regulate their industry such that they may not, in good conscience, continue to work in that industry. If that happens it will join other professions that, while legal, are more-or-less off limits to Christians for reasons of conscience.

    I’d ask one additional question: if those offering wedding-related services gain the right to refuse to sell those services for use in a same-sex ceremony, and if atheists gain the right to discriminate against Christians in all manner of services, not just wedding, on what basis would you forbid discrimination on the basis of race or sex? Or, would you?

    • Reformed Perspective

      December 18, 2017 at 3:55 pm

      As you point out, freedom of conscience has limits. But those limits have to be reserved for extreme cases, or there is no freedom. So let’s look, then, at the basis for “freedom of conscience.” It can be found in a number of Christian principles:

      1)”Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you” – Luke 6:31

      This is the thrust of the article: our conscience is what we hold to be right and wrong, and pressuring someone to do what they believe to be wrong (or else lose their business) is a great injury to them. So, just as we wouldn’t want someone to injure us in this way, we should try not to injure them in this way.

      That pressuring someone to violate their conscience is such an enormous demand is why the State should not make this demand of its citizens except in the most dire of circumstances. You list a few such circumstances: we will not allow parents to cut off their daughter’s clitoris, and we do not allow parents to deny their child life-saving blood transfusions. There we have a justification for the State to act. Why? Because it matters and it is dire – a girl who has her clitoris cut off will experience repercussions for her whole life, and a child denied a life-saving transfusion will die.

      But the same urgency simply doesn’t exist in matters of cake decoration and wedding photography. Just as Christians don’t need to cause a fuss by forcing an atheist baker to make a “God is great” cake, it is not a dire thing for a gay couple to have to walk down the street, or even drive to the next town, to find an obliging bakery. Their inconvenience is not a pressing enough reason for the State to come in and pressure someone to violate their conscience, or else be put out of business, or be fined $137,000 (as has happened).

      2) Man is limited and imperfect, and some things are clearer than others

      An underlying principle to freedom of conscience is that we are willing to oblige people who are wrong…to an extent. We’ve already seen that if that endangers their child, or causes permanent injury to them, then a line has been crossed, and we aren’t willing to oblige them any more.

      Also underlying this idea is that there is a right and wrong, and sometimes that is easier to tell than other times. When we can understand why others might think differently – we might think them wrong, but we get why – then we should be particularly tolerant. This is why we tolerate pacifists, and don’t make them go and fight. We think them wrong, but understandably so.

      Now, when it comes to marriage, we can make the case for Traditional Marriage religiously (this is how God said it should be), historically (it has been made this way for hundreds and thousands of years), and biologically (the parts fit and function procreativity). So despite the many recent triumphs legislatively for same-sex “marriage” advocates, it would be the height of arrogance for them to say that they don’t understand how a reasonable person could hold to Traditional Marriage. So why, then, the lack of tolerance for those who believe differently than them?

      —-

      Other principles could be mentioned – we might talk about how God hates hypocrisy – mere outward conformity – and since the State can’t compel belief it shouldn’t try. Or we could talk about how, as Proverbs 10:12 puts it, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” and how we don’t need to make big deals out of minor matters.

      Now you ask, on what basis would we allow discrimination on the basis of belief about same-sex “marriage,” but not race or sex? Part of it comes down to Truth. We rightly discriminate on the basis of relevant differences – we shop at the tastier bakery, hire the more personable applicant, give scholarships to the smarter student. All of that is discrimination, and we don’t have a problem with it. The problem comes when someone discriminate on the basis of differences that don’t matter, such as skin color. Sex is most often not a relevant difference, but sometimes it is – a man might not want to hire a female secretary to reassure his wife. Or a woman might want to go to a woman doctor because that’s who she feels most comfortable with. When it comes to beliefs about same-sex “marriage” this needs to be understood for what it is – it is rebellion against God that harms all those involved. So the main reason we should be allowed to discriminate in this situation is because the difference here – same sex “marriage” is harmful in a way that Traditional Marriage is not – is real and relevant.

      Another part of it comes down to (as mentioned before) whether it is a dire situation. We should think little of one white baker, in a city full of bakers, who won’t serve Jews or blacks or Irish or whatever. He’s bigoted, and if he keeps at it, he’ll probably be out of business soon. But we don’t need the heavy fist of the State to come in and intervene. A better case for such intervention could be made when there is a town full of such bakers and the Jews, blacks or Irish residents can’t find anyone willing to sell them the food they need – then the situation isn’t just inconvenient.

      Now, the world doesn’t recognize the Christian principle underlying freedom of conscience, so they may well not see it as a great injury to pressure Christians and others to violate their conscience, even for the most minor of matters. The world also seems to be arrogant about the clarity with which they think their side is in the right, despite the fact that the world has only just changed it’s mind about same-sex “marriage” and whether Man comes in two genders or an infinite variety. Without the Christian basis for freedom of conscience, this freedom may be increasingly ignored and undermined. So Christians have to appeal not simply to this freedom, but also explain the underlying foundation – the Christian foundation – for it.

      • buddyglass

        December 18, 2017 at 4:55 pm

        Lots to respond to here. I’m going to go piecemeal; hopefully that’s okay.

        Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you

        The problem with this is that it’s relative. Someone who opposes an exception to anti-discrimination law for Christian bakers might be logically consistent and say, “Because I don’t think anyone should be discriminated against, if I were a baker I would welcome the state obligating me to bake cakes for ceremonies to which I object morally or religiously.”

        This is the thrust of the article: our conscience is what we hold to be right and wrong, and pressuring someone to do what they believe to be wrong (or else lose their business) is a great injury to them.

        I get that that’s the argument being made. Those on the other side might actually agree that forcing someone to violate his or her conscience is a “big deal”. They may just consider allowing discrimination against a protected class to be a similarly “big deal”. Also, I think there’s some concern about creating a “slippery slope” where individuals can justify all manner of discrimination based on the freedom-of-conscience exemption. For instance, my religion says black people are the devil’s children, ergo I don’t want to serve them in my restaurant. Who are you, government, to force me to violate my sincerely held beliefs? Etc.

        But the same urgency simply doesn’t exist in matters of cake decoration and wedding photography.

        Does this principle not also argue for allowing businesses that provide wedding services to refuse to do business with mixed-race couples? Or, for that matter, black couples? Or Muslim couples? If not, why not? We seem to be saying that discrimination in this particular context is not a big deal; a couple facing discrimination can just drive to the next town. Given that, on what basis would we force someone with the sincerely held belief that black people shouldn’t marry or procreate be forced to participate in black couple’s weddings?

        Other principles could be mentioned – we might talk about how God hates hypocrisy – mere outward conformity – and since the State can’t compel belief it shouldn’t try.

        For what it’s worth, I don’t think the state is trying to compel belief. Just as with the racial situation in the 1950s and 1960s, the state isn’t saying, “You have to regard black people as having equal dignity and being deserving of equal rights to white people”. Rather, it’s saying, “You can’t refuse to serve them in your restaurant.” The goal isn’t to change the white person’s mind, but their behavior. Because their prior behavior harmed those they were discriminating against. Obviously changing people’s minds is preferable, but if you can’t do that you can at least prevent them from doing harm.

        Now you ask, on what basis would we allow discrimination on the basis of belief about same-sex “marriage,” but not race or sex? Part of it comes down to Truth.

        So you would have the state parse which religious beliefs are “true” and which aren’t? I suspect those on the other side are willing to employ the same logic; they conclude that the Christian bakers’ objections to same-sex marriage (and homosexuality in general) are not “true” and that whether a customer is a practicing homosexual shouldn’t “matter” to a business owner.

        Or a woman might want to go to a woman doctor because that’s who she feels most comfortable with.

        This is an example of the customer discriminating. No law against that. This brings up an interesting hypothetical, though. A male general practitioner could not legally refuse to see female patients, even if he felt it would violate his conscience to do so. Do you feel doctors should be able to discriminate in that way, because their occupation involves seeing patients naked and/or examining their genitals?

        Another part of it comes down to (as mentioned before) whether it is a dire situation. We should think little of one white baker, in a city full of bakers, who won’t serve Jews or blacks or Irish or whatever. He’s bigoted, and if he keeps at it, he’ll probably be out of business soon. But we don’t need the heavy fist of the State to come in and intervene.

        Except we did (arguably) need the heavy hand of the state to intervene when those laws were passed. Because it wasn’t just one baker; it was all the bakers. Or, at least, all the white bakers. And they weren’t going out of business because all the whites continued to patronize them despite their obvious bigotry. I haven’t taken a poll or anything, but I suspect there are probably some rural locations where a same-sex couple might have to drive a considerable distance to find a baker (or florist, or photographer, etc.) to provides services for their wedding.

        To take a step back, the argument I find most compelling in favor of the bakers et. al. is the one that argues you can’t compel speech, and that “creative endeavors” are basically speech. So a baker couldn’t be forced to design a cake for a same-sex wedding, but the employee working in the bakery department at the local grocery store would be forced to sell the couple a “stock” cake. A photographer could refuse his or services to a gay couple but a stationary store couldn’t refuse to sell fancy paper to the couple to use for their invitations. Because, again, one has a “creative” component and the other doesn’t.

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