Can State Governments Impose Religious Beliefs on Private Business Owners? – Arlene’s Flowers v. Ferguson

Arlenes

A news report out of Washington State reenergized my interest in writing about the threats to First Amendment Rights in this country, largely from those who hold to the doctrine that sexual freedom is an ultimate right.  According to the Daily Signal, a Washington judge ruled this week that a 70 year old florist was guilty of violating the states anti-discrimination laws when she refused to make floral arrangements for a gay wedding. In his 60-page opinion, the judge writes: “No court has ever held that religiously motivated conduct, expressive or otherwise, trumps state discrimination law in public accommodations. Religious motivation does not excuse compliance with the law.”

It is worth nothing in this case that the florist, Mrs. Barronelle Stutzman, gladly serves gay customers, and the man who filed the lawsuit was a long-time customer of hers.  But when he asked her to provide services for his wedding, she declined on grounds of conscience informed by her Christian faith.  She recalls: “I put my hand on his and said, ‘I’m sorry Rob, I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ. We talked a little bit, we talked about his mom [walking him down the aisle]…we hugged and he left.”

The court ruling ignores the difference between moral discrimination and amoral discrimination.  To “discriminate” simply means to recognize a distinction between.  Thus moral discrimination means to recognize the difference between good and evil.  Every human being does this; it is a function of the human conscience.  The kind of discrimination that has come to give the word such a toxic connotation is of an amoral nature.  It is a prejudicial judgment of a person’s worth based on characteristics that lack moral properties. The reason while racial discrimination is generally unjust is because it, as MLK Jr. famously said, judges someone “by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.” Other amoral characteristics that may be a basis for discrimination include gender and age.

As an aside, it is highly questionable whether the government ought to regulate even amoral discrimination in the first place, especially over private businesses. The oft quoted liberal aphorism (used in relation to eliminating anti-abortion and anti-sodomy laws) that it is not the government’s job to legislate morality applies here. Our country has a tradition of upholding private business owner’s freedom of association (i.e. freedom to refuse business on any grounds they see fit).  Thus, even if a business owner discriminates on amoral grounds, and such behavior is morally objectionable, why should the government get involved in the first place? People should be able, normally, do to business with whom they please.  The free market will punish those who turn away business and thus lose market share or refuse to hire the most qualified employees based on such characteristics.

But this ruling in Washington goes beyond such discrimination and attempts to regulate moral discrimination of private citizens. That is it seeks to use the force of the state to coerce people into suppressing moral judgments the state disagrees with, and act according to those moral judgments the state approves of.

In this case, Mrs. Stutzman, on religious grounds, finds gay marriage to be objectionable. This is not some fringe, cultish religious conviction, but one that is held by tens, if not hundreds, of millions of U.S. Citizens, and represents consensus across all major religious traditions. It is firmly grounded in widely and sincerely held religious belief. She believes that she would be sinning against God if she supported a gay wedding by providing services for it. You may disagree with her moral convictions, and her religious basis for them, but the U.S. Constitution constrains the state from using its power to suppress the expression of them. Clearly, the state of Washington’s anti-discrimination laws are prohibiting her free exercise of religion.

But they are doing even more than that. I argue that such rulings interpret anti-discrimination laws in such a way as to establish religious belief. This is because they are forcing people to accept an certain concept of marriage which is not and indeed cannot be religiously neutral. The state of WA is in effect saying, “You cannot express publicly this religious-based belief that marriage should only be between one man and one woman; instead, you can only express publicly the state sanctioned belief that marriage is whatever arrangement two adults please.” These beliefs about marriage are themselves derived from faith commitments concerning the purpose of human existence, the meaning of life, the nature of man, etc. And in instances like these throughout the country, state and local governments are punishing those that disagree with these doctrines and express disagreement publicly.

Friends, such actions are a threat to our fundamental freedoms. I urge you to fight for our First Amendment rights to differentiate between right and wrong on religious grounds and act publicly on such judgments. Without this first freedom, other freedoms will gradually be eroded.