By now, most have heard of the many and varied court cases related to conscientious objection, usually of a religious nature, to serving gay weddings. They are filling the courts as bakers and florists, bed and breakfast operators and caterers, are being sued for not wanting to engage in activity they deem supporting the wedding itself.
But now we are starting to get the decisions.
A judge ruled that a Washington state florist who refused to provide a flower arrangement for a gay wedding “because of [her] relationship with Jesus” violated the state’s anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws.
Background: the couple asked the florist to provide flowers for their wedding in March 2013, three months after Washington state legalized same-sex marriage. The florist had served the couple at least twenty-times before, and knew they were gay. But when the request came to provide flower arrangements for their wedding, she said that she could not provide the arrangements because doing so would have constituted a demonstration of approval for the wedding itself.
“I just put my hands on his and told him because of my relationship with Jesus Christ I couldn’t do that, couldn’t do his wedding.”
The charge against the florist was discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The State Attorney, who brought one of two lawsuits against the florist (the other came from the ACLU), said “If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same-sex couples the same product or service.”
But the legal team for the florist said she hadn’t denied the couple flowers, just the arrangements. An arrangement, it was argued, was a form of free speech. They were welcome to her flowers. Further, they argued the florist’s faith should exempt her from anti-discrimination laws.
In a sixty-page opinion, the judge maintained that “religious motivation does not excuse compliance with the law…In trade and commerce, and more particularly when seeking to prevent discrimination in public accommodations, the courts have confirmed the power of the legislative branch to prohibit conduct it deems discriminatory, even where the motivation for that conduct is grounded in religious beliefs.”
More specifically, the judge maintained that while religious beliefs are protected, religious actions are not. When the state of Washington approved gay marriage, a Christian refusing to serve gay weddings became illegal.
The florist’s attorney, Kristen Waggoner with Alliance Defending Freedom, said of the pending appeal: “The ruling basically said that if you dare to not celebrate same-sex marriage because it violates your religious convictions, that the government has a right to bring about your personal and professional ruin…Her home, her business…her life savings and retirement, these are all in jeopardy…all because of her deeply held religious views.”
Many Christians are conflicted about such stories, not to mention verdicts. No one wants to see true discrimination take place.
But there is a significant difference between serving a wedding and, say, serving a meal. Many in opposition to the florist’s stand want to link it to the civil rights movement and the abhorrent Jim Crow laws that were in effect until the mid 1960’s.
However, 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.
She would sell them flowers. She just didn’t want to create something that would be used for the wedding itself. She didn’t try to stop the wedding, or refuse them flowers for their wedding…she just didn’t want to be a participant. They could use the flowers for whatever they wanted, but that was their concern. She didn’t want to have to create something expressly used to, in her heart and mind, dishonor God.
Think of it this way: suppose she had been asked to make a floral arrangement for a Hindu wedding, a floral arrangement that was destined to be given as a sacrifice to a particular Hindu god. To make such an arrangement would be, for a Christian, unthinkable. It would be making something for a purpose that they simply could not bring their hands to craft. And for some reason, I think the court of public opinion would be with her.
To say that belief cannot be linked with action is to say that religion is fine as long as it isn’t real. As long as it doesn’t result in an actual lifestyle of conviction. It should be treated as a personal, private preference, but not a transcendent reality. As such, it must compromise itself to anything society deems desirable.
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.
And this is the heart of the matter for the florist as well, for after being offered a settlement in this case she responded by saying:
"Your offer reveals that you don't really understand me or what this conflict is all about. It's about freedom, not money. I certainly don't relish the idea of losing my business, my home, and everything else that your lawsuit threatens to take from my family, but my freedom to honor God in doing what I do best is more important."
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, here it is: you are saying you can’t be a Christian photographer, at least not a practicing one.
So there you have it.
A judge has ruled that a “relationship with Jesus” doesn’t justify acts of conscience. The only problem is that a relationship with Jesus demands just that.
James Emery White
Sarah Kaplan, ‘Relationship with Jesus’ doesn’t justify florist’s refusal to serve gay couple, judge rules,” The Washington Post, February 19, 2015, read online.
Samuel Smith, “Florist Who Refused Gay Wedding Offered Settlement; I Will Not Be Like Judas, Betray Jesus For Money, She Replied,” The Christian Post, February 23, 2015, read online.
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: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.