Arizona’s law and the free exercise of religion

This week, Arizona’s House of Representatives passed a bill stating that business owners, churches, corporations and other institutions have a right to refuse service or admittance based on an individual’s sexual orientation.

According to supporters of the bill, its aim is to protect Arizona citizens’ freedom to abide by their religious beliefs. In order to legally deny service to a gay or lesbian patron, a person or organization must do so because of a genuine religious conviction that would be burdensome if ignored or contradicted.

Under this bill, a “free exercise of religion” defense could be used in cases concerning discrimination as long as the discrimination could be framed as a result of religious beliefs. The only thing this bill needs to become law is the signature of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. On one hand, I know it would be naïve of me to think that this attempt at legalized discrimination is some kind of anomaly.

De jure discrimination is nothing new in our country, and it’s reflected in everything from our “War on Drugs” to our treatment of immigrants. However, I find this bill particularly frightening because of the way it allows a twisted interpretation of religious teachings to be used as justification for treating certain people as if they are lesser humans.

Though Christianity is not the only religion that teaches that homosexuality is wrong, I will focus on Christianity because it is the religion with which I am most familiar. I grew up in a conservative, Evangelical home. I have had the opportunity to hear both sides of this argument from the mouths of thoughtful, intelligent people, and I am fully in support of a person’s right to practice his or her religion and live by its teachings.

I think many people vilify proponents of legislation like this, characterizing them as ignorant, gay-hating and malicious. In my experience, many of these people are torn between a desire to stand against what they believe is wrong and act on what they believe is right. For example: how do I “love my neighbor” without accepting the parts of her life that I truly believe are wrong? Unfortunately for those on both sides, I believe the answer to that question is — you can’t.

I once read an article that phrased it well: you can’t love someone while denying him the rights you enjoy. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to allow a group of people to freely act on their convictions, it becomes wrong when those convictions are a product of prejudice. In this case, the desire to avoid doing business with gay people does not stem from adherence to Christian principles.

Even if a person chooses to believe that the Bible names homosexuality as a sin, nowhere in the Bible does it say that a Christian cannot interact with a person without endorsing said person’s behavior.

Judgment toward gay people is not a tenet of the Christian faith, so it should not be protected by a free exercise clause. If you believe being gay is wrong, you should never be forced to be gay. If you are against gay marriage, you should never be forced to attend the wedding of two gay individuals.

If you believe homosexuality is a threat to society, you should never be forced to recant those beliefs. However, your “right” to refuse service to gay people is not something that any government should protect.

A gay person is, first and foremost, a person, not some symbol of a perceived societal ill. In this case, religion is merely being used to validate prejudice. Will some Christians in Arizona also be refusing service to pregnant, unmarried women? How about liars, gossips or hypocrites? Because the Bible mentions all those, too.

The LGBTQ community is being singled out and picked on, and that’s not right. In my favorite story from the Bible, Jesus comes across a crowd of people preparing to stone a woman who committed adultery. Jesus doesn’t attempt to protect their right to exercise their religious convictions. He doesn’t try to tell them that the woman has the right to act as she chooses. He doesn’t keep walking, refusing to interfere in something that isn’t his problem.

He simply says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Needless to say, nobody throws any rocks. Though I personally do not believe that being gay is in tension with the Christian lifestyle, and while I’d love to see each American state legalize gay marriage, right now I’d be happy if a gay person in Arizona could walk into a bakery without having to worry about being turned away.

As students at an institution committed to empathy and equality among different communities, we should not stand by while an entire state is thrust back into legalized Jim Crow-style discrimination. I encourage you to write to Gov. Jan Brewer and urge her to withhold her signature.

Tatum Hunter is a sophomore from Lebanon, Ohio. She is majoring in English and theatre.

One thought on “Arizona’s law and the free exercise of religion

  1. Well written. The caveat here is that some Christian-based business in the wedding industry are being sued for not participating in providing thing (cakes, flowers etc.) for same-sex weddings.

    I don’t agree with the Arizona law, and I’m happy to see it vetoed by Governor Brewer, but you mentioned “If you are against gay marriage, you should never be forced to attend the wedding of two gay individuals.” Would it be reasonable to say this, but require a bakery to provide a wedding cake?

    The law was not limited to this specific instance, and for that, it was far too broad to even be considered appropriate or just. But I do struggle with reconciling the differences of that specific instance.

    For the occurances I’m referencing, you can read these two news articles, one from Colorado, one from Oregon.

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