All eyes were on Arizona this week to see if Gov. Jan Brewer would sign or veto a controversial bill relating to religious liberty. Supporters of the bill had hoped that it would have given legal recourse to Christians (and others) who decline to participate in gay wedding celebrations. Opponents of the bill painted it as the resurrection of Jim Crow and as a cynical attempt to enact legal discrimination against gay people.
As you no doubt have heard by now, Gov. Brewer vetoed the bill last night. Many Christians who are concerned about religious liberty are no doubt disappointed by this news. In my view, however, the debate surrounding the bill has been even more disturbing that the actual defeat of the bill. Why? Because nearly every media outlet covering the controversy has treated the bill as if it were self-evidently growing out of animus and bigotry.
Even my favorite political program, “Morning Joe,” dismissed religious liberty concerns out of hand and misrepresented the bill as an attempt keep business owners from having to serve gays. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What was the real motivation for this bill? Was it really just an attempt to enact a new Jim Crow regime aimed at homosexuals? For anyone paying attention to what’s been going on around the country, the answer to that question is clearly “no.” As I argued yesterday, Christian business owners are happy to serve gay people. They just don’t want the government to impose coercive penalties on them for refusing to participate in gay wedding celebrations. That’s the issue.
If you doubt this is the case, let’s put a face on what has been happening to Christian business owners around the country. Aaron and Melissa Klein owned a storefront bakery in Gresham, Oregon—a business that they had been operating for about eight years in their community. Throughout the life of the business, Aaron says that he and his wife were happy to serve the gay people who came into his store on a weekly basis. (See their story in the videos above and below.)
In January of 2013, a young woman and her mother visited the store and asked Aaron to bake a cake for the young woman’s forthcoming nuptials. As Aaron began taking down her information, he asked the names of the bride and the groom. The girl giggled and said, “Well, actually it’s two brides.” Aaron apologized and told the young woman that he doesn’t do gay weddings because of his Christian faith. The girl and her mother left the store outraged at his refusal.
After leaving the store, they reported the Klein’s to the state of Oregon, who just last week found that the Klein’s were in violation of Oregon’s anti-discrimination statute. Now they are subject to fines and penalties under Oregon law. Over the last year, gay rights activists protested the Klein’s store with public demonstrations. Eventually, the protestors used “militant, mafia style tactics” and forced the Klein’s to close their storefront and to move their business into their home.
Does this sound like Jim Crow to you? The Klein’s were happy to serve gays and to bake cakes for them. In fact, they emphasized to reporters that they don’t hate gay people. They love gay people. They just didn’t want to involve their business in a gay wedding celebration. Why? Because their Christian conviction prevented them from participating. They could not help a lesbian couple to celebrate what their conscience tells them they cannot celebrate.
The Klein’s have lost their storefront. The penalties they are facing may drive them out of business. Even though they have served gay people in their store, they are now being branded as hateful and intolerant bigots. I ask you. Who in this scenario needs protection? The lesbian couple leveraged the coercive power of the state against the Klein’s, and the Klein’s have nearly lost everything because of their Christian conviction. If anything, it’s the Klein’s, not the lesbians who need some kind of provision in the law to protect them from this kind of intrusion into their conscience.
That’s exactly what proponents of the Arizona law were trying to do. They wanted to provide a way for Christians not to be subject to the coercive power of the state like the Klein’s were simply for refusing to participate in a gay wedding.
The Arizona bill is dead, but this issue is not dead. Christian business owners around the country will have some very tough decisions to make. Either violate their conscience and participate in gay weddings, or obey their conscience and face the coercive power of the state. Unless some accommodation is made for them, a great injustice will continue to unfold right before our very eyes.