You used to see signs in small businesses saying, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” (and my favorite variation, “We reserve the right to serve refuse to anyone”).
You don’t see those signs much anymore, but the question of what services businesses may refuse to provide is very much in the news, and in the courts. Businesses like Hobby Lobby do not wish to pay for certain contraceptives for employees; some bakers do not wish to furnish wedding cakes for gay couples; some photographers do not wish to take photos at gay weddings.
I have had email exchanges with opinion writers who are certain that in all of these cases, the religious freedom of the business owners is at stake. I’m not so sure.
The case for the business owners comes from the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. In response to an opinion column from the college that showed up in my email, I asked: “Are employers morally culpable if they provide employee benefits that employees use in ways the employers consider immoral? To me, that is the key question. I don’t mind the government making people do things they don’t necessarily want to do, provided there is a good enough reason for it, and especially if government action helps make employees free to make their own moral judgments. I do mind the government forcing people to sin.”
I had a friendly exchange with John Sparks of the College, who complimented my question but never fully answered it. He argued that pharmacists should not be required to dispense drugs that cause abortions or nurses forced to take part in abortions. He wrote, “These are real cases, not hypothetical and the state is forcing people to sin or suffer severe consequences.”
I was unsympathetic to his point about pharmacists because they should know when they take those jobs that they don’t get to decide what drugs doctors prescribe.
But I wasn’t too sure about nurses, and I was even less sure about Hobby Lobby and the bakers of America. They can’t just decide not to engage in commerce.
A couple of weeks later came another op-ed from Grove City College. In this one, Paul Kengor placed Hobby Lobby, bakers and photographers all in one religious basket: “In all these cases, there’s one commonality: liberals/progressives disregard the religious rights and property rights that they are steamrolling in the name of gay marriage and abortion. Religious rights and property rights are subjugated to a kind of liberal/progressive gulag.”
Once I got past a certain shrillness in the prose, I asked how baking a cake or taking a picture conflicts with anyone’s religious beliefs.
He replied, in part: “It’s quite simple: Neither side should be FORCED to do something it doesn’t want to do. If your religious faith teaches that homosexuality is a sin (as many do), and that same-sex marriage is sinful and unacceptable (as many do), you should be able to decline providing your service to a same-sex ceremony. It’s a free country. It’s America. (Or at least it once WAS America.)”
I replied, “There’s a difference between simply not wanting to do something and a genuine violation of conscience. I may not want to cater a gay wedding because gays creep me out. But that’s not the same as having an authentic religious objection.
“Government makes people do things they don’t want to do all the time: pay taxes, stop at red lights, provide services that may conflict with one’s racial biases. For there to be a real First Amendment objection, it seems to me, there has to be a real violation of one’s conscience or beliefs – forcing Jews to eat pork, for instance, or forbidding Muslims from bowing to Mecca, or requiring Quakers to take up arms. I just don’t see how baking a cake, no matter how that cake is ultimately used, crosses that line.”
To which he replied, again in part, “You ought to be free not to be forced to make a cake for anyone for whatever your reason. It’s your business. … I’m Roman Catholic. My church teaches that homosexuality and even same-sex unions are ‘intrinsically evil.’ So, clearly, same-sex marriage violates the teachings of my faith. Supporting or even working for or providing services for a same-sex wedding would be a definite violation of core teachings of the faith. You’d be directly serving the event. It easily crosses the line.”
And then I said, in part, “I’m not a Catholic, but the church I grew up in also teaches that homosexuality is wrong, and presumably I would be guilty of a sin if I were to preside over a gay wedding ceremony under the auspices of that church. But I don’t see how I have sinned if all I do is bake a cake that is served at a gay wedding, or pump the gas that fuels the gay honeymoon vehicle, or mow the yard of a gay married couple.
“If I did think those were sins, then I would also have to be on the lookout for divorced people who remarry because my church teaches that divorce is a sin. And I suppose I would have to be wary of fat people because my church teaches that gluttony is a sin.”
He has yet to reply. And I have yet to resolve this knotty issue in my head. Where does the right of businesses to choose their customers intersect with the right of customers to buy products they want and need? Can anybody out there help me out?