GOZUN: Religious freedom laws prompt people to just say no

gozun colorIn December 2008, a New Jersey couple went to a bakery seeking to purchase a cake for a special occasion. However, the two were denied their request by the store’s management.

“We reserve the right not to print anything on the cake that we deem to be inappropriate,” a spokeswoman for ShopRite, where the couple went to make the order, said. “We considered this (order) inappropriate.”

Someone reading this story without context may assume a discrimination lawsuit against the store followed for its refusal to service the couple’s order. After all, other cases of businesses refusing to serve customers have made news across the country. However, there was little controversy at all over ShopRite’s decision, which was to not decorate a birthday cake with the name of Heath and Deborah Campbell’s three-year-old son named Adolf Hitler.

Whether or not individuals or businesses can be allowed to opt out of performing services they deem to go against their beliefs has been at the heart of intense controversy these past few weeks due to the passage of “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” in Indiana and Arkansas. According to the Indiana law, the government may not burden a person’s freedom of religion unless there is a compelling government interest in doing so and that a person may use the burdening of his or her right to religious expression as a defense during court proceedings.

A similar bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993 after passing Congress with an overwhelming, bipartisan majority. Today, 21 states have RFRAs, from Rhode Island to Illinois to Arizona. So why have the Indiana and Arkansas laws drawn so much scrutiny, while the federal law faced almost none?

The answer, many will say, is context. The original 1993 federal law was written in response to a case in which two Native Americans ran into legal trouble for ingesting peyote, which is a component of certain indigenous religious ceremonies. By contrast, the most recent RFRAs were passed in light of several cases in which business owners, such as bakers or florists, were sued for declining to service same-sex weddings. And thus, despite neither law containing any language specifically referencing LGBT persons, opponents have called them an open license for businesses to discriminate.

Many are now calling for boycotts of various kinds against Indiana and Arkansas to protest the law, among them numerous business leaders and the governor of Connecticut (which has its own RFRA). This is ironic because the issue at hand is not discrimination, but freedom of association. Through a boycott, those involved are pledging to not do business with Indiana and Arkansas, which as private individuals, is completely within their rights. Now there are people refusing to do business with those who passed a law ensuring people the right to refuse to do business with others.

But even more important than freedom of association is freedom of conscience. In 17th Century Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate forced suspected Christians to step on pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Those who refused were executed. Regardless of what you may think about stepping on a picture or baking a cake for a same-sex wedding, it is immoral to force people through the rule of law to compromise their beliefs.

As a democracy with both freedom of religion and separation of church and state, it is unlawful for the government to selectively choose which beliefs it will deem recognizable and which it will deem illegal. In a truly tolerant society, all beliefs, including those we personally deem repugnant, must be allowed protection under the law.

If you find making a cake for children named after Nazis to be wrong, then don’t do it. If you are gay and don’t feel like catering for the Westboro Baptist Church, then don’t do it. If you are a Palestinian-American and don’t want to serve the Israeli ambassador, then don’t do it. Thankfully, you have the right to say “no.”