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There Are No Religious Objections to Treating People with Dignity

by Michael Austin, published
Tuesday, the Kansas House or Representatives passed a bill

HB 2453, with the short title “Protecting religious freedom regarding marriage.” The bill is now being debated in the Senate, where its chances for passing look good.

HB 2453 stipulates, among other things, that sincere religious believers can refuse to “provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.”

In plainer language, the bill says that, if you are a baker, you don’t have to bake a cake for a wedding that you don’t approve of. If you are a florist, you don’t have to sell people flowers for ceremonies that violate your convictions. And even if you are a lowly county clerk in rural Kansas, you don’t have to stamp “approved” on a marriage license for people whose marriage you just can’t support. And so on.

The bill’s sponsors have elected to pitch this as an issue of religious freedom, which it is not, instead of as a straightforward libertarian argument for the right to do as one pleases in one’s own place of business, which is precisely what it is. Framed honestly, this bill would give Kansans everywhere the right to dust off their segregation-era signs saying, “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Under the actual bill, the signs will have to read “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone as long as we can claim a vague religious objection to what they will do with our product.”

I get that there are religions that object to people of the same gender getting married. I am a practicing Mormon who is also the second-ranking official at a Catholic university. I live this reality every day. And, I also get that these religions have a fundamental right not to perform same-sex marriages — and that those who practice these religions have a right not to marry anyone of the same gender. This is why we have a Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment.

But, we walk on some pretty dangerous ground when we allow individuals to refuse, on religious grounds, to engage in commercial transactions because they object to the way that their product will ultimately be used. At a very minimum, this places a non-standard burden on those who purchase goods and services to disclose their intentions.

I can imagine plenty of uses for duct tape or WD-40 that I could legitimately object to on religious grounds. This would not give Wal-Mart the right to refuse to sell them to me. If we do decide to go down the road of refusing goods and services to people whose motives we disagree with, we might think about starting with, say, guns and ammunition instead of with flowers and wedding cakes.

Ultimately, though, the idea of a religious objection to providing a service to a same-sex couple does not even make sense on religious grounds. When someone is asked to provide such a service, the question being asked is not, “do you agree with people of the same gender forming a state-sanctioned contract?" It is, “do you agree that people should be treated with dignity?" And fortunately, this is a very easy question to answer from the religious point of view.

I do not have to agree with the way that other people live their lives in order to treat them as human beings who deserve respect. All I have to believe is that human dignity is a precious thing and that my job is to love and not to judge. And fortunately, the overwhelming majority of religions that I know anything about, at least in their official teachings, agree.

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