A recent article from the RNS describes the efforts in Oregon to craft the bill that would legalize gay marriage in such away as to allow conscience protections for business owners. The conscience protections being debated would allow private business owners who have a religious objection to gay marriage to refuse to serve gays. Supporters are described as holding the opinion that business owners should not be required to serve everyone.
This, of course, leads to the immediate objection by opponents to the notion that this is no different from businesses being allowed to refuse service to blacks or other minorities. The oft-leveled rejoinder is that homosexuality is not a Civil Rights issue since it involves at least a measure of choice (as a robust ex-gay community attests in spite of much persecution in an attempt to silence them) whereas things like skin color or ethnicity are entirely determined by genetics. From here the debate usually devolves into unhelpful back-and-forth arguments about whether someone is homosexual by nature or nurture.
All of this debate, however, misses an important detail in the more well-known cases dealing with the conscience protections of private business owners (a Colorado baker, a Washington florist, and a New Mexico photographer). Each of these and other similar cases have been presented by the national media as cases in which a private business owner refused service to a gay couple simply because they were gay. The details were generally not further explored. The business owners were presented as bigots who hated gays, end of story. This narrative was even driven home in a special What Would You Do? with John Quinones on ABC in which hidden cameras caught patrons reacting in horror as a cafe employee refused to serve a gay couple simply because they were gay.
And yet, I can say with some confidence that the presentation of the “facts” in these cases is almost libelously misleading. These business owners have served gay patrons many times in the past and in all likelihood will continue to do so willing in the future. In fact, in each case the business owners were willing to do business with the gay couples. The Colorado baker was ready and willing to sell a cake to the gay couple. He had sold cakes to other gay individuals. The New Mexico photographer was willing to take pictures of the gay couple. I suspect she had taken pictures of other gay individuals on other occasions. The Washington florist had done business with this very same couple on other occasions.
So then, why the refusals in these instances? What was different? Did some visceral hatred suddenly rise up and lead to these harsh, intolerant rejections of these poor couples? Hardly. Well, what do a baker, a photographer, and a florist all have in common? Answer: They are all artists. In each instance these artists declined to use their artistic abilities to create what would have amounted to a celebration of something they each considered to be immoral, namely, gay marriage. Again, in the case of the Colorado baker in particular he was willing to sell the couple a “stock” cake. He drew the line at using his artistic abilities to go above and beyond the norm in such a way that would, again, celebrate something he considered immoral.
The real issue here is not at all whether a business owner can refuse service to whomever they choose. These business owners were not interested in that question in the slightest. All three had done so in the past and would certainly do so again in the future (assuming the persecution they have received at the hands of folks more interested in advancing the cause of gay marriage than in protecting their First Amendment rights has not soured them on the idea). They were interested very simply in not using their gifts to celebrate something they oppose as immoral on religious grounds. To frame this in any other way serves only to distract from the heart of the matter.
And the heart of the matter is this: When the government has the power to compel people to create speech they consider immoral on religiously justifiably grounds (as the New Mexico Supreme Court declared it to have in the case of the New Mexico photographer), we have a problem. That is the real issue here. Gay marriage simply provided a platform for it just as birth control is currently doing in another set of cases. How much power does the government have in determining what is religious enough a reason to deviate from what it has deemed “good for society”? Is it more important to not offend the feelings of a group of people or to allow people to exercise religious beliefs that deviate from what the culture deems acceptable?
Oregonians can try and split hairs on how to legally allow businesses to refuse to serve gays once they legalize gay marriage, but that approach will only give the media a platform to unfairly vilify business owners like these three by highlighting the few bigots who would refuse service simply because a patron was gay. And, it will ignore the real issue. As a people who are committed to the truth, let us work to make sure the truth is out in the open and not hidden behind the smoke screens of culture.