Reserving the right

Might churches offer their own alternative “witness” on divisive cultural issues of marriage, race, sexuality and conscience? We’d better try.

By Bill Leonard

When I was a kid in Decatur, Texas, there was a hole-in-the-wall diner called Shorty’s Stop located just off State Highway 81 in that county seat town. Some guy named Shorty owned the place where I had my first soft-serve ice cream and the best chili dogs in the universe. (I can taste the onions yet.) Behind the cash register was a sign that read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”

Being a kid, I didn’t understand what that meant, but wondered whom Shorty might refuse to serve — bad people (how would he know?); people who carried guns (it was Texas, silly me!); or people he just didn’t like (an early version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi?).

Leonard reserve the right WebUltimately, I discovered that it was a public declaration of racial discrimination, a statement posted in many Southern establishments in those days. Shorty would not serve Negroes, many of whom lived just across the railroad tracks where “those people” were allowed to dwell in our very segregated town. So in 1950s America, the name Shorty’s Stop had a double meaning for white and black folks thereabouts, some of whom were worthy of Shorty’s chili dogs because of the color of their skin, some of whom were too “dark” to be served. A decade or so later, Civil Rights legislation tore “We reserve the right” signs off the wall.

The memory of Shorty’s and its infamous sign came back to me on reading that the Arizona legislature approved a bill that would allow citizens to refuse to serve persons of a particular sexual orientation without threat of litigation — a law couched in terms of the server’s religious freedom. In essence it means businesses can “reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” whose life, beliefs or personal preferences conflict with the religious convictions of those asked to accommodate them. That includes persons seeking to use commercial establishments for same-sex weddings, receptions, hotel accommodations and other public-sector events.

Co-written by the Center for Arizona Policy and the Alliance Defending Freedom (a Christian legal group), the law’s advocates insist that they are protecting persons with deep religious convictions from discrimination. Critics — including the Chamber of Commerce, Delta Airlines and other corporations — suggest that it perpetuates discrimination that could be generalized beyond sexuality to non-Christian religions, interracial or interfaith marriages, and divorcees, all “unservable” on the basis of certain precise biblical mandates.

Turns out that Arizona’s governor vetoed the bill, but similar legislation is pending in other states including Georgia, Ohio, Idaho, South Carolina and Oklahoma, further evidence of an increasingly fractured American religious culture, still struggling to negotiate the realities of pluralism with diverse biblical interpretations. Questions abound.

First, which biblical mandates regarding marriage are non-negotiable? If Scripture and conscience compel a refusal to serve persons in the LBGT community, wouldn’t that require a similar response to the divorced and remarried, since Jesus (silent on homosexuality) says rather clearly that “whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Matt. 5:32 KJV)? Is such a union adultery or marriage? And what of couples who have already cohabitated before marriage? Can their weddings be facilitated for conscience sake? Sorting out one biblical mandate from another has spiritual and economic implications for Christian enterprises.

Second, amid life’s great questions, when does conscience prevail and when does it obscure bigotry? Baptist history illustrates the point. Conscience and concern for radical religious liberty led colonial Baptists like Dr. John Clarke to refuse participation in the New England culture of official, privileged religion even when ostracized and marginalized. Writing in 1652 Clarke “testified” that “no such believer, or Servant of Christ Jesus hath any liberty, much less Authority, from his Lord … to constrain, or restrain his Conscience.” That witness extended religious liberty and pluralism all the way to the Bill of Rights.

Yet a sense of Christian conviction undergirded by various “biblical mandates” led Charleston, S.C., Baptist pastor Richard Furman in 1822 to defend “the lawfulness of holding slaves” as a “duty to God, the peace of the State, the satisfaction of scrupulous consciences, and the welfare of the slaves themselves. …” Sometimes conscience is our greatest defense; sometimes it is indefensible. When is conscience culturally correctable and when is it a moral absolute?

Fortunately, the Arizona actions are those of the state, not of any specific religious communion. Might churches offer their own alternative “witness” on divisive cultural issues of marriage, race, sexuality and conscience? We’d better try, given that one in three persons under age 34 is deserting the church, often because of its response (or unresponsiveness) to gays and lesbians.

Reflecting on that reality and the “we reserve the right to refuse service” sign behind the counter at Shorty’s Stop decades ago, I recalled the question asked every first Sunday at our home congregation, First Baptist Church, Highland in Winston-Salem, N.C., after Holy Communion has been distributed at Christ’s Table: “Has everyone been served?” — Kingdom of God talk for Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, even gay and straight. For our consciences too, thank God.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.