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Five Observations on "Refusing to Serve"

Dr. James Emery White | Mecklenburg Community Church | Published: Mar 02, 2014

Five Observations on "Refusing to Serve"

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer decided last week to veto a bill that would have allowed business owners to refuse service on the basis of religious or moral conviction.

Translation: a baker wouldn’t have to accept an order for a wedding cake for a gay wedding.

It ignited a national conversation on the relationship between religious freedom and non-discrimination, and the dividing lines were not neat and clean, with Christians as divided on the matter as non-Christians.

I believe there are five very important observations to make on the matter:

First, the Arizona bill was not carefully written, and could have been used in broadly discriminatory ways.  Regardless of its intent, virtually everyone – Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal – felt the veto was warranted.  Even the original sponsors of the bill recognized its weak framing and, in the end, supported its rejection.  No one wants to legalize discrimination along the lines of that repudiated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Second, the sponsors of the Arizona bill – and the many others like it coming up for votes across several states – were not motivated by bigotry, but fear.  There is a genuine concern among many people of faith that religious freedom is under threat, and that apart from such bills, people will be increasingly forced to participate in events and activities they deem immoral (and as the insurance/contraception debate has shown, this isn’t limited to gay marriage). 

Third, there is almost unanimous public affirmation of not only non-discrimination, but religious freedom.  This is what makes the debate so electric.  As powerful and compelling as non-discrimination is to the electorate, religious freedom is the sole value that rivals its winsome allure.  As a result, no one is publicly calling for clergy, churches or denominations to be forced into actions that go against their religious convictions.  At least, not yet.

Fourth, there is a significant difference between serving a wedding and serving a meal.  Many in opposition to “religious freedom” bills, such as the one proposed in Arizona, want to link it to the civil rights movement and the abhorrent Jim Crow laws that were in effect until the mid 1960’s.  The analogy is specious on several fronts, but most importantly because a wedding has always been a deeply religious event.  Among many Christians, it is one of the holy sacraments.  It is not about a general refusal of service on the basis of race, gender or even sexual orientation.  It is about forced compliance in regard to what has historically been, and continues to be for most, a sacred act being treated in a sacrilegious way, and people being forced into participating in that sacrilege.

Finally, let’s not be naïve about the not-so-subtle agenda that seems to be creeping into the cultural discourse on such matters.  For many, it is not enough for homosexuality to be allowed; it is not enough for it be accepted; it is not enough for gay marriage to be legal.  The end game for some seems to be the penalization, if not criminalization, of any and all convictional opposition.

To my thinking, this is the heart of the “religious freedom” concern.

So when the argument goes, “Yes, of course I believe in religious freedom.  But if you’re going to be a photographer, you will have to subvert that to your role in society as a photographer.  After all, you don’t have to be a photographer!”


“Of course clergy and churches should not be forced to officiate gay weddings.  But if they don’t, they should lose their tax exempt status,”

...let’s call it what it is.  This is the active penalization of religious conviction, and the polar opposite of religious freedom. 

Of course the photographer has to be a photographer.  It is their vocation, their livelihood, the fruit of their training and education.  If you want discrimination, there you have it:  you are saying you can’t be a Christian photographer, at least not a practicing one.  

That is why we really do have a newly minted “freedom of religion” question to decide.  Yes, the Arizona bill was poorly worded, to be sure. 

But we need one that isn’t.

James Emery White


“Arizona's decision just one bump in the road for religious liberty movement,” Chelsea J. Carter, Ben Brumfield and Tom Watkings, CNN, February 27, 2014, read online.

“Religious Freedom Bills Rooted In Fears Of Obama Policies,” Alan Greenblatt, National Public Radio, February 24, 2014, read online.

“Prominent Republicans call for Ariz. Gov. Jan Brewer to veto bill allowing denial of service to gays,” Fox News, February 26, 2014, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones, is now available for pre-order.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Five Observations on "Refusing to Serve"