The Rev. Eugene W. Baade, Renton, Washington
Writer’s Note: The essay below was first published in the church newsletter of Redeemer, Mercer Island, WA, where the undersigned serves as pastor in retirement. He decided to revisit the essay because the subject continues to fuel heated debate in American religion, culture, and law. In fact, the debate has grown even stronger in the last year as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Hobby Lobby (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 2014), and as a result of new laws passed in certain states regarding freedom of religion. The most controversial law as of this date is Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (Senate Act 101, 119th General Assembly), particularly as it pertains to the legal right of businesses (usually small businesses) not to sell their products and services to given persons whose identities and actions they disagree with for “religious” reasons. In the case of the Indiana law, if a business owner decides that selling to such individuals or groups creates a “burden” on his religion, then he or she may refuse to sell goods and/or services to such individuals or parties. Such refusal would be upheld or denied in a court of law should a lawsuit against said business be brought. To reach a decision, the court would have to balance said “burden” with its reading of discrimination in each separate case. At this time, the Indiana law is headed toward a legislative clarification, as is another one in the State of Arkansas.
Power and authority are two powerful ideas we have in our American democracy. They are closely allied with two other powerful ideas, freedom and justice. These ideas are daily realities that engage us all, either on the dispensing end or on the receiving end.
Among the freedoms of our republic is, euphemistically put, “freedom of religion.”
The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution describes the latter: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
Whereas the principles of power and authority ideally support freedom, provide for various kinds of services to citizens, and guarantee them certain rights, the question has arisen as to whether business owners and their employees, including managers, have the power and authority to do just the opposite, namely, to refuse services and sales to specific others using “freedom of religion” as a reason. Whereas a mom or dad may say “No” to a son or daughter, and that seems natural, the refusal to serve someone in the public sphere does not seem very natural, except that it naturally follows the doctrine of Original Sin which suggests that, “I am more important than anybody else in any given matter and I am also the one who knows what is best.” It is interesting how Original Sin is really at the root of the reason for why people discriminate against each other, and even at the root of how religion, itself, is used as a justification for doing so.
The question of benefiting others or refusing to benefit them has arisen often in American history with respect to selling goods and services. It has been raised with regard to particular races (African-Americans, American Indians, Hispanics), to women (there is a lengthy and complex history of discrimination that is gender based), and to certain nationalities (the Irish, the Germans, the Chinese, and the Mexicans are just a few examples). People of “color” were once refused service or were directed to separate facilities, such as rest rooms, drinking fountains, and restaurant tables. In the history of the City of Seattle, near where this writer lives, the Chinese were literally shipped out of Seattle because they were perceived as a threat to white laborers. During WWII, Japanese-Americans were removed from their homes, had their businesses taken away from them, and were interred in camps.
Some of the reasons for these discriminatory actions – the motives were sometimes thinly veiled — were jealousy of cheap labor (the Irish, the Chinese, the Mexicans), the belief that certain races were inferior (Negroes and American Indians), and fear of attack within the U.S. homeland (the Japanese).
“Freedom of religion” appears to be a new card played in the game, or an old card played in a new way.
Some Christians believe that their faith and the “free” exercise of their religion trumps everything else, including the rights of others with whom they disapprove. They ask, “Shouldn’t my faith and how I want to exercise my religion be an acceptable reason to refuse service to people or sell something to them?” “Isn’t my faith and the practice of religion inviolable and my natural right, so I can do whatever I want as long as I have religious reasons?” “Can’t I use my faith and religious practice to ‘teach others a lesson’ if I think they’re sinners?” “Am I not allowed to say, ‘I am a Christian,’ so I can refuse to book you into my motel or make a cake for you or sell you a slice of pizza because you are someone I don’t think God approves of?”
To this writer, the answer to these and related questions is, “No.” “Freedom of religion,” as he understands it, does not grant anyone the “freedom” to refuse service to others based on the things one perceives that are actually central to their identity and being, namely race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, creed, sexual orientation, and IQ or mental health. There are certainly gray areas where business owners may “reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” or state, “no shirt, no shoes, no service.” But these decisions are properly understood to be based on some temporary condition: perhaps a customer’s alcohol inebriation or drug-induced mental state or his bad or obnoxious behavior.
Why can’t we (or shouldn’t we) use “freedom of religion” as a reason to decline service to someone in the public sphere or refuse to sell something legal to them? Why isn’t “freedom of religion” an appropriate justification to discriminate on moral grounds? The following points are not all the reasons, but they are the most immediate ones this writer has considered.
1) Do we congregate to discriminate? The “free exercise” of religion in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution refers primarily to the right to worship as we please within our sanctuaries and teach what we doctrinally believe within our church schools. It may include some other things, but what we have been guaranteed is the right to assemble to worship as we see fit, singing the hymns and praying the prayers that are our preference, and of course preaching as we are taught. To refuse to serve someone outside of our sanctuaries and classrooms may be motivated by something we have been taught “in church,” but our refusal to serve or sell in the public marketplace has little or nothing to do with our right to assemble for worship and our right to teach our creed within our private ecclesiastical education institutions. It gets more complex, of course, when it comes to a church body’s policies regarding public enrollment in its parochial schools, and whether state laws allow for a church to restrict enrollment.
Essentially, the claim that we have the “right” to discriminate for religious reasons is disconnected from our right to worship and praise God. Granted, in the Old Testament, there were many Levitical laws and other directions given by God to the Jews that commanded non-contact with others and, for example, forbade intermarriage with people outside the group. The vast majority of Christian churches have long said, however, that those Old Testament laws do not apply to followers of Christ in the new covenant. They have been superseded by the Gospel.
2) Did we emigrate to discriminate? When Lutheran and other Christian denominations emigrated from the “old world” to the “new world,” it was often to escape persecution and discrimination. Missouri Synod Lutheran forebears were mandated by the ruler to share texts of worship and particular hymns with other denominations with whom they disagreed in doctrine. Governmentally proscribed worship was part of a program undertaken in 1817. It was called the Prussian Union. Those German Lutherans, therefore, immigrated to America in order to be free to worship as they saw fit. Other evangelical Christians immigrated to America from the “old world” for similar reasons. How awkward and strange it is that some believers, however properly they wish to protect their freedom of worship from governmental interference, also wish to use their religious views to discriminate against others beyond the scope of worship.
3) Did God legislate to discriminate? When we look at God’s Law, we understand that the center of it rests textually in the Ten Commandments. We know what those commandments say. Now, let us ask: Do any of these laws of God command us to treat people badly? Do they instruct us to humiliate them in public? Do they command us to decide which people we will serve and those whom we will not serve? Do they not, rather, focus powerfully on worshipping God alone and being a neighbor to others in every sort of way? When Joshua said (chapter 24), “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” he said it in opposition to worshiping the gods of the Amorites and those beyond the Euphrates. He did not say it in opposition to serving and showing love for people through the commands of the Law. Also, did not Jesus say that the fulfillment of the Law is to “love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”? God’s Law cannot be used as a “religious” pretext for discriminating against others. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite.
4) Did the reformers protest-ate to discriminate? We have, in our own Lutheran tradition, an often overlooked document that is one of several that we collectively call the Lutheran Confessions. It is titled, “On the Power and Primacy of the Pope.” This document argued that the pope’s power, and by deduction the power of any religious leader or church was, in the civil realm, restricted to the power of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ — the Gospel. Here is a section from that document:
… Christ gave to the apostles only spiritual power, i.e., the command to preach the Gospel, proclaim the forgiveness of sins, administer the sacraments, and excommunicate the godless without physical violence. He did not give them the power of the sword or the right to establish, take possession of, or transfer the kingdoms of the world. For Christ said, Go therefore and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, 20), and also, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). Moreover, it is manifest that Christ was not sent to wield a sword or possess a worldly kingdom, for he said, “My kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36). Paul also said, “Not that we lord it over your faith” (2 Cor. 1:24), and again, “The weapons of our warfare are not worldly,” etc. (2 Cor. 10:4) (“Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope,” sec. 31, [Tappert 325]).
While it is manifestly true that, out of their faith, Christians are to help make good laws and create good government in the civil realm, and may run for and be appointed to public office, as well as serve in the military, their faith is not to be used as a rationale for establishing a religious “kingdom” of any particular persuasion on earth. The latter would inevitably lead to the exertion of discriminatory power over citizens of their choice, and certainly those who do not share the beliefs and practices of those in power. We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. Thus, using faith and “freedom of religion” as a rationale to discriminate against other people, when various core identities are targets–be they race, nationality, ethnicity, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or mental capacity–such a rationale is an affront to the very Gospel of Jesus Christ itself.
5) Did Jesus “incarn-ate” to discriminate? Finally, do we not have an example in the Lord Jesus? While he, at times, called individuals “out” for their sins, it is interesting that those he identified as the most egregious and hypocritical sinners were the self-righteous religious folks who thought they had a right to discriminate and point their fingers at other, more “manifest”, sinners. It’s not that he didn’t think that tax cheating or commercial gouging were not sins, or that prostitution was not demeaning to the holiness of one’s body, it’s that he refused to discriminate against or reject the people who were ill-treated and judged wanting by the religious leaders. He talked to them, loved them, forgave them, and ate and drank with them. To other “inferior” people, such as women, Galileans, Samaritans, and fishermen, whose core identities or vocations had nothing to do with being sinful, he did the same: he loved them, talked to them, invited them to be his disciples, forgive them, and ate and drank with them. He who washed the feet of his disciples and taught them that thus they must serve others came to be a servant to all and to die for all.
Power and authority, freedom and justice — these are wonderful ideas that form the core identity of the life of any democracy worth its salt. This certainly includes the United States.
We have identified “freedom of religion” as another core identity of our republic. In the writer’s view, and he trusts that he is not alone, freedom of religion and the right to exercise one’s faith does not include the freedom to restrict the freedoms and civil rights of others. Religious zealots who wish to do so–whether out of fear or jealousy or for any other reason–should remember the following amendment to the U. S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment, Section one, says: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
When we freely gather to worship God in the way we see fit, it seems wise to remember that we have been blessed to live in a constitutional democracy, not a theocracy that could conceivably be designed and defined by any given definition of faith or God. Think about that for a moment. One given theocracy might insist on the right to cut off someone’s hand. Another could imprison or execute intellectually disabled people and homosexuals. Yet another could decapitate any woman who dresses improperly. Sound familiar? These and many other horrendous things have happened already in our lifetime for “religious” reasons.
The only true theocracy I wish to live in is the one to come, around the throne of our loving Father in heaven. In the meantime, I would like to live in a country where I am free to worship as I please and at the same time have the joy of proclaiming the Gospel along with its deployment of forgiveness, love, compassion, and promise of the resurrection and the life. Why would I want to spoil that beautiful and golden thing by introducing or supporting discriminatory laws based on a perverted understanding of the power and authority that God has given the church and so-called believers?
A seminary professor of mine, when considering the disturbing proposition by some that the Gospel needed defending and therefore the church should be more aggressive in protecting it, said that he believed we should protect the Gospel as we would a lion: just turn it loose.
In our country, we are ill-advised to “turn loose” discriminatory laws based on religion or personal faith. Rather, let us in our churches and out of our faith turn loose the powerful Gospel that God loved the world so much that he gave it his only-begotten Son to die for the sins of each and every one of us, believers and unbelievers alike, and everybody in between.
The Rev. E. W. Baade
Revised, April 4, 2015