Will Religious Liberty Fly Away?

A furor was created in Tennessee earlier this month over legislation that met at the intersection of same-sex marriage and religious liberty.  The same took place in Kansas and Arizona. Accusations about the bills taking us back to the “Jim Crow” days abounded. But those taking us back to those bad old days are not who you think!

The purpose of the pieces of legislation in question could have been couched two different ways by the media in Tennessee. The first one below is pretty close to a headline actually used in a Tennessee newspaper and the second is an alternative that, not surprisingly, no newspaper used.

Bill would allow wedding vendors refuse services for same-sex marriages

Bill would prevent government from forcing wedding vendors to violate their religious beliefs

What the Bill Really Does

Regardless of which headline better reflects your view of the bill, taken together they reflect what the bill did “allow” and “prevent.” The bill would have allowed vendors and religious organizations not to participate in a wedding ceremony if, in doing so, they could prove to a court that they believed they were participating in an act that violated their sincerely-held religious beliefs. For our purposes, I’ll call them the “marriage-vendor bills.”

While the furor was great among those within and outside the Christian community, the real issue is not so much theological but whether we really value liberty and religious liberty in particular?

Liberty, Coercion and Restraint

From our founding until more modern times, Americans generally believed the bad that can come from people using their liberty in their personal relationships to do some socially unacceptable thing was exceeded only by the bad that can come from government compulsion and coercion in those relations. They understood that liberty could be messy, but it wasn’t as ugly as government coercion.

A distinction between freedom of private association and freedom from government compulsion in our relationships is important, particularly in view of the accusation that the marriage vendor bills are nothing more than Jim Crow laws directed toward homosexuals instead of African Americans.

What Jim Crow Laws Actually Did

If you remember, the Jim Crow laws compelled racial segregation, not just in government buildings and services, but among private relations, such as those between a business owner and his or her customers. And many used religion as a reason for the government mandating segregation.

Now many are saying, “Aren’t the proposed laws regarding marriage vendors like Jim Crow laws and weren’t Jim Crow laws unconstitutional?”

The answer: no, they aren’t the same; and yes, Jim Crow laws were rightly ruled unconstitutional.  It is here that the distinction between the messiness of freedom and the ugliness of government coercion must be remembered.

Freedom Versus Mandated Relationships

The Jim Crow laws created a government-mandated relationship between private individuals, namely, separation between races.  The same-sex wedding vendor bills are therefore fundamentally different.

Those who assert the same-sex wedding-vendor bills are like Jim Crow laws actually have it backwards.  What homosexual activists want is a law mandating a relationship between a private individual who owns his own company and other private individuals of the same sex who want to get married.  It is this type of law that is really more like a Jim Crow law than the marriage vendor bills. The Jim Crow laws compelled private business owners whose religious beliefs were violated by segregation to engage in segregation anyway in order to do business.

A law forcing someone into a private relationship in connection with private events not open to the public – a wedding – should be looked upon very circumspectly, particularly when doing so would violate one of the party’s religious rights.

A Better Example Proves the Point

Perhaps it will help to better understand the issue if we take the emotionally charged issue of homosexuality out of the picture and consider another example. Suppose an African-American Christian who believes racism is wrong owns a bakery. The Ku Klux Klan wants him to cater pastries for their big annual meeting. As a Christian he might want to take the job in order to be a living example of treating others as he would want to be treated. And he might do it to show the Klan that color has nothing to do with competence and integrity.  But do we really want government to pass a law forcing him to provide pastries for the local Ku Klux Klan meeting? My guess is that most folks today would say, “Absolutely not!”

The issues raised by the same-sex marriage-vendor bills deserve serious thought. They go to the heart of whether we really want to be a free people and whether religious liberty is still an important value to us. Ironically, the very constituency that demanded they be allowed the right of self-determination in their personal relationships now does not want to extend that right to others.

If the Jim Crow argument flies in the minds of the public to undermine and defeat the marriage-vendor bills, then religious liberty and freedom fly away with it. And homosexual activists and their unwitting accomplices will have taken us back to the bad old days of the Jim Crow laws.