A while back–weeks or months ago, or maybe a year, who knows–I read an article about a dispute between a lesbian and a Muslim barber. This is not a joke. This was in Toronto. (Also not a joke.) The lesbian wanted a “businessman’s haircut” (not sure what that is, not being a businessperson, but I assume it’s a thing businesspersons and their barbers know about). The Muslim refused because his religion forbids him from touching a woman who isn’t his relative. I don’t know what the relevance of her being a lesbian was, but it was part of the story, which is why I include that tidbit here. I guess her being a lesbian somehow explained why she would be visiting a barbershop that catered exclusively to men, although I should think that would be offensive on some level, I don’t know. Who am I to judge? It still doesn’t explain why she’d want especially to visit a Muslim barbershop. But I digress. The woman was offended by the Muslim’s refusal and filed a complaint with the human rights commission. The case went to moderation.
When I read about it, the case had been settled via a private, confidential agreement that allegedly pleased both sides, which I thought was a great outcome. I was not so pleased, though, that the agreement had to be confidential. Here we had a gay woman’s civil rights pitted against a religious minority’s right to practice his religion. One would have thought this an unresolvable dispute without trampling on someone’s sense of justice. So how was this resolved to everyone’s satisfaction? We’ll never know, which makes me kind of crazy. It’s like someone reported there was an accident on Main Street between a Honda Civic (hybrid) and a bus full of orphans, but never mind if anyone was hurt or who was at fault because that’s confidential. Move it along, people, nothing to see here.
With the growing societal acceptance of homosexuality and the growing governmental intervention in the arena of health care, some religious Americans have complained that their first amendment rights are being restricted. Granted, this is after gay people have already had their right to buy wedding cakes at the bakery of their choice restricted and women have had their right to have hormone-based contraceptives provided at no cost to them restricted for years, but now that straight white Christian men are involved, let’s all pay attention.
There are legitimate concerns on all sides. In the case of the bigoted bakery, the liberal/progressive solution is simple: If you’re a business offering services to the public, you have to be willing to provide those services to everyone, no matter what your religion says. The libertarian and/or conservative solution is even simpler: Maybe you could just find another baker? (Radical, yet effective!) In the case of the woman-oppressing employer, the libertarian/conservative solution is simple: We need to uncouple health insurance and employment. The liberal/progressive solution is even simpler: Religious people need to get over themselves. (Unlike most liberal/progressive solutions, this one doesn’t raise anyone’s taxes. But I digress.)
One side argues that religious freedom has to be balanced with other rights and does not extend to violating the rights of others. If you don’t believe in gay marriage, that’s fine–don’t believe in it all you want, but that doesn’t mean you can refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Baking a cake for gay wedding (and accepting money for it) doesn’t violate your deeply-held belief that gay marriage is wrong. You still believe it, don’t you? No one’s forcing you to change your mind, just to bake a cake. If you want to be in the cake-baking business, baking cakes for everybody and all occasions is the price of admission. If you don’t like it, go back to baking cakes in your own non-commercial kitchen for free. Likewise, if you don’t believe in birth control, fine. Don’t use birth control. Think that anyone who does is going to hell. Think anything you like. It’s not like this is 1984 or something. You still have the right to your own thoughts (within reason). You just don’t have the right to deny your female employees contraception paid for by you. (It has to be paid for by you because the law says you have to provide health insurance and all health plans have to provide no-cost contraception to its users, as is only appropriate because contraception is a legitimate health care expenditure, even if it is only for women of childbearing age. Fecund women are every bit as human as impotent men. Don’t pretend you don’t understand the analogy.)
The other side argues that religious freedom is our most basic freedom, the right to speak and act in accordance with the dictates of our own conscience. “Dictates of our own conscience” is a Mormon phrase, but Mormons often think they have a vested interest in preserving the religious liberty of conservative Christians, even though most of those people think Mormons are going to hell and would throw us under the bus the minute it became expedient for them to do so. Nevertheless, Mormons–like all religious people–do have a vested interest in protecting religious freedom, whatever that is. I mean, we wouldn’t want anyone to force us to act against our own consciences (unless it was for something essential to a civilized society, like cake or birth control). That way lies tyranny. Before you know it, we’ll be forbidden from engaging in sacred ordinances, such as polygamy. Oh, wait.
Seriously, though, a lot of Mormons are concerned about religious freedom because they can easily foresee how the government might infringe on their rights. Some of these people are just paranoid. A few weeks ago my husband was teaching a youth Sunday school class, and the kids were wondering what would happen if the U.S. government started forcing us to perform gay marriages in temples. Would the temples have to close? Well, such a scenario is not entirely unthinkable–obviously, since plenty of people have thought of it–but at this stage there are several legal obstacles that would have to be overcome before it became even remotely likely. If it ever looked like the government was going to force the church to open its temples to any couple getting married, the church would simply stop performing weddings, i.e. it would perform sealing ceremonies only for Mormon couples who met temple-worthiness requirements after they had been legally married civilly. (In other words, American Mormons would start getting married and sealed the same way countless other Mormons around the world get married and sealed. No temple closures required. Perhaps we’d even end up doing temple work more efficiently because we wouldn’t have these brides with their poofy dresses clogging up the works. Who knows what the ramifications might be?)
But not everyone who’s concerned about religious freedom is just being paranoid. I confess to being a little concerned about religious freedom myself. Mostly because I’m suspicious of all government encroachment, which I guess makes me paranoid, but I like to think I’m a reasonable person, so it can’t be just paranoia. I must have a legitimate concern in there somewhere. No matter how good people’s intentions are, laws can sometimes have unintended consequences. Actually, they usually do. So maybe it’s paranoia, but sometimes a little paranoia is a healthy thing.
Speaking of unintended consequences, a friend posted an article on Facebook about the Church of Satan using the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to repeal “informed consent” laws about abortion. Her take was that this is what happens when you take religious liberty too far. Who wants the Church of Satan to triumph? And yet, what are your choices in a religiously pluralistic society? I admit I couldn’t make heads or tails of the Church of Satan’s argument, but it doesn’t really matter because if there’s a group that poses less of a threat to my country than Satanists, I don’t know what it is. I’m actually okay with the Satanists having their way on this one, even if I don’t particularly have a problem with “informed consent” laws themselves. But what are some scenarios in which one person’s religious liberty is pitted against another’s?
1. A polygamist (NOT a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) walks into a bakery owned by an evangelical Christian. (Not a joke, but a hypothetical.) The polygamist wants a wedding cake for his marriage to his fifth wife. Nothing weird, just your basic wedding cake, only with five bridal figures next to the groom on top, instead of just one. He’s willing to pay extra, considering that the baker will be forced to break up four other sets of decorative couples and what’s he going to do with those extra grooms? A gay male couple hasn’t come into the shop in months. Unfortunately, the evangelical Christian doesn’t believe in polygamy and he can’t in good conscience make this wedding cake for a ceremony he thinks is an abomination before God. He tells the polygamist he’d be happy to refer him to another bakery that does this sort of thing, but the polygamist was pretty set on having an evangelical Christian bake his fifth wedding cake. No one knows why, and he won’t say, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say that going to another bakery isn’t an appropriate solution. The polygamist feels he’s being discriminated against because of his religion. After all, he’s not forcing the evangelical Christian baker to become a polygamist. The baker’s only objection is that he’s against polygamy, which is a central tenet to the polygamist’s faith. Therefore, the polygamist is a victim of religious discrimination. But the baker argues that baking a polygamist wedding cake implies an endorsement of polygamy, which his conscience simply won’t permit. (One might envision a secular baker also objecting to baking a polygamist wedding cake, arguing that polygamy is an inherently sexist and/or misogynist practice, but after the Hobby Lobby decision, it isn’t clear whether feminists have any rights at all anymore.)
2. A Mormon walks into a seamstress shop owned by a devout Christian (non-denominational). (“Seamstress shop” seems like a very old-fashioned term, but frankly I’m not sure of the politically correct name for a place that sews clothes to order. I’m not even sure how many of these places exist anymore. But since this is a hypothetical, it shouldn’t matter whether it exists or not.) The Mormon wants a white dress made for her daughter’s baptism. The seamstress doesn’t ordinarily have a problem making clothes for Mormons—some of her best customers are Mormons, which is how this particular Mormon came to hear about her shop. Never mind the fact that any Mormon woman worth her salt could sew a dress herself, especially for something as important as her own daughter’s baptism. Let’s say these Mormons share some kind of disability that prevents them from receiving the full blessings of self-reliance in this life. In any case, it’s not that the seamstress hates Mormons, but she does believe that Mormonism is a false religion and a cult and she can’t in good conscience sew a dress for this girl’s baptism because it might imply she endorses the child taking upon her the name of another Christ. The Mormon who can’t sew (for reasons beyond her control) feels she is being discriminated against because of her religion. After all, the seamstress sews infant gowns for Christian baptisms. But she won’t provide a dress for an eight-year-old Mormon getting baptized? What about a dress for a Jewish girl’s bat mitzvah? Has she got a thing against Jews too? Huh? The seamstress thinks this is beside the point (but just for the record, she thinks Jews are a whole other ball of string) and she shouldn’t be forced to participate (however tangentially) in an ordinance she thinks is a mockery of the real thing.
3. A member of the Westboro Baptist Church walks into the store of a Jewish piñata-maker. (It’s kind of a long story, but suffice it to say this cat has lived an interesting life.) The Westboro Baptist guy wants to commission a life-size piñata of Gertrude Stein. The piñata-maker says, “First of all, why would you want a likeness of a lesbian sculpted by my non-Aryan hands?” The Westboro guy says, “Actually, we’re not an Aryan supremacist group. We just hate [homosexuals]. We also hate Jews but not because of their race. Mainly because they don’t believe in Christ and often work in alliance with [gay people].”
“Be that as it may,” says the piñata-maker, “I still don’t get it.”
“You’re the only custom piñata business in a hundred mile radius. All our vans are currently being used to transport members to funeral protests. I had to walk here. Anyway, it’s not like we’re going to eat the candy inside or anything. We just want to beat it with a stick and then burn it. It’s a symbolic thing. So how much would you charge for that?”
“Nothing! I’m not making you any piñata, you crazy bastard! Get out of my store!”
“You have a giant replica of Spongebob Squarepants in your front window! Don’t tell me you don’t make life-size piñatas of gay icons!”
“Spongebob Squarepants is a cartoon character. My religion doesn’t condone beating humans with sticks, even in effigy.”
“We have a constitutional right to express our religiously based hatred of Jewish [lesbians]. This is discrimination!”
“You’re a sick [fool]! Now get out before I call the cops!”
“You’ll be hearing from our attorney about this! Also, [redacted]!”
My question is how do we resolve these disputes without the special wisdom that a full disclosure of the lesbian-Muslim haircut settlement might have afforded us? How do you decide whose religious freedom trumps whose?