Last Thursday, Arizona's state legislature passed a bill allowing businesses to refuse service to gay or lesbian customers based on proprietors' religious beliefs. The bill was championed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative Christian organization that defines its mission to defend religious liberty in terms of protecting Arizonans' "ability to respond to the Great Commission and share the Gospel." The only thing that stands between the bill becoming law now is the wavering veto pen of Gov. Jan Brewer (R), who previously blocked a similar resolution — but has also expressed support for the rights of businesses to refuse service.
Naturally, the bill has resulted in a great deal of controversy. The ACLU along with a variety of LGBT advocacy groups have spoken out against it, and protesters have voiced their discontent in Phoenix and Tucson. As for the Christian response to the bill's passage, some have praised it, while others have counted themselves among those in opposition. At one rally in protest, a sign read: "What about love thy neighbor?" Most Christian objection has followed in that vein.
But of course, whether Christians are being discriminated against if they're taken to court for refusing service to gays and lesbians depends on if there is something religiously salient and necessary behind such refusals. That is to say, Christians would need to posit, as the Center for Arizona Policy does, that it's impossible for business owners to faithfully practice Christianity without discriminating against gay and lesbian customers. Is it really so?
To me, it seems not.
Firstly, to request legal protection for discriminating against gay and lesbian customers supposes that gay and lesbian are legitimate anthropological categories — that is, that sexual orientation is the right lens through which to imagine human sexuality, and that your orientation is your defining characteristic. But this notion is not native to Christian thought, and has been repeatedly challenged — most recently by Michael W. Hannon's First Things essay, "Against Heterosexuality." Hannon argues, quite convincingly, that a more reasoned Christian approach would view sexuality in terms of behaviors rather than these essential categories of identity — and notes that numerous queer theorists already agree with the dissolution of such essentializing binaries.
This makes the question of how Christians should be expected to behave toward couples in same-sex relationships clearer. Christians cannot be expected to facilitate or condone acts that are prohibited by the Bible. One can imagine, then, a sex therapist being protected from the expectation to counsel certain couples, or churches themselves from performing marriage ceremonies, as the first case would involve facilitation and the latter condoning. But nothing is facilitated by a Christian photographer taking pictures of a same-sex couple at a same-sex wedding, nor does the performance of such a service require or communicate that one condones. And, in the reverse, nothing is prevented if a Christian bakery refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding: The wedding will presumably go on, and all the baker is rescued legally from is contact with people who, in his or her view, sin.
For me, this is the disturbing kernel of the issue. The conservative Christians behind this legislation are asking for a legal protection to cut off relationships — market or otherwise — with people they view as having sinned. This legislation legally enshrines, in other words, the notion that one can't practice Christianity faithfully while carrying on normal social relationships with people who sin. Here it seems useful to ask why the vendors who are so averse to providing goods or services to people who commit certain categories of sexual sins don't apply that logic more roundly. Would these same bakeries refuse cakes to opposite-sex couples who had premarital sex? Would they refuse to photograph an opposite-sex couple if one member had previously been divorced?
Though the bill was passed to target same-sex couples, there's no reason, operating under its logic, it could not be extended much further. If Christians can't be expected to practice Christianity without legal protection from market relationships with people they view as sinners, do they have to serve people who belong to other religions? And if so, why? To the degree that the Bible instructs people not to perform sex acts with members of the same sex, it also instructs them to have no other Gods before the Christian God. If tailoring a wedding dress for a lesbian is somehow participating in her supposed sin, then isn't it also a danger to repair the car of a Jewish man? He could be using that thing to drive himself to a synagogue, after all. One can imagine how religious minorities would fare, especially in rural or sparsely populated areas, should the reasoning behind this bill turn its eye to them. In that case, whose religious liberty has really been defended?
The logic of this bill and those who support it threatens to twist Christianity into a vile, exclusionary, isolating thing. It wrongly appropriates an un-Christian anthropology to do little more than arbitrarily target people who fall on the wrong side of a particular moral line, and at the end of the day seems equipped to do nothing more than insulate certain Christians from people they feel they're holier than.
There are legitimate arguments to be made for real cases of facilitation of prohibited acts, but it must be stressed that this bill casts an extraordinarily wide net, and would allow most any business to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers should they feel their service contrary to their religious beliefs. I don't believe that businesses should be legally required to serve all customers for all purposes, but the solution produced in the Arizona case is remarkably unsophisticated and projects a particularly grim vision of how Christians should carry out their witness to Christ while engaged in communities of diverse people. While how to live the message of the Gospel in relation to others is a bigger topic than this space allows, it seems certain it doesn't begin with severing relationships, an act that only cuts off opportunity for witness, and never invites it.
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