The news is full of debate around Indiana’s new law, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which many say would allow outright discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) individuals. Just like last year’s Supreme Court decision that allowed Hobby Lobby to deny birth control coverage to its employees on religious grounds, this newly passed law represents a growing movement among cultural conservatives to preserve their freedom to non-cooperation with government policies that offend their religious sensibilities.
After all, they argue, if a family business objects to contraception on religious grounds, isn’t it a violation of the First Amendment to force them to pay for it? If a pharmacist believes that a certain prescription medication is immoral, does she have an obligation to fill it? If a hotel owner believes that same-sex relationships are wrong, should he be forced to provide a room to a gay married couple?
At first glance, these may seem like thoughtful concerns about the meaning of our constitutional society. But dig a little bit deeper, and it’s apparent that those who are insisting on a religious exemption to discriminate are asking for extraordinary privileges for themselves.
Just ask any pacifist.
As a Quaker, I know this struggle well. My church, my family, my whole religious tradition abhors violence. We deny the utility and morality of the military-industrial complex. It is a deeply painful thing for us, and for many other peaceful people, to see a huge portion of our federal income taxes go to pay for war-making. Our religious freedom is denied every time one of our young men is forced to register with the federal government for possible military conscription.
Yet, for as long as the United States has existed, those in power have determined that religious dissenters like me and my community don’t have a right to redirect our tax dollars to nonmilitary spending. We also don’t have the right to refuse to register for the draft. We don’t have a special exemption to block the trains carrying nuclear materials, or stand in the way of bombers intended to kill thousands in our name.
Don’t get me wrong, some of us do resist. My dad, for example, is a war tax resistor. He politely informs the IRS each year that he’s withholding the portion of his federal income tax that would be used for military expenditures. And, every once in a while, the IRS comes and removes the money from his bank account anyway, along with interest and fines for noncompliance. My dad gets off relatively easy, because his form of resistance does not carry criminal penalties, so long as he is open and honest about what he is doing.
Some of my nonviolent brothers and sisters go even farther. Like the Plowshares Movement, who take direct action to resist the blasphemous nuclear arsenal that presently stands poised to destroy all life as we know it. Steeped in a deeply held Christian commitment to peace, Plowshares members stage symbolic protests that sometimes damage government property, such as long-range nuclear bombers and missiles. These bold witnesses often spend many years in prison for their conscience.
Contrast this with the folks who want religious freedom to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, or to deny their employees insurance to purchase legally available birth control. Are there some very real, deeply felt religious beliefs behind these requests? Sure. But how deep do these convictions run? Are they worth sacrificing for?
As Annalee Flower Horne pointed out a couple years ago, a distinguishing characteristic of a true religious concern is a willingness to pay a price in order to be faithful. Real religious freedom comes from within – it’s founded on the willingness to pay a real, personal price to uphold that freedom.
So I have this question for my fellow Christians who want the government to uphold their right to discriminate against LGBT people: What is your religious freedom worth to you? If you really think that the cause of the gospel is best served by refusing hospitality to those you disagree with (I’d love a Scripture reference on this, by the way), how far are you willing to go? Are you willing to suffer for your conviction, as so many of our war-resisting brothers and sisters have for centuries?
I believe that your answer to this question will clarify a lot. If you are willing to suffer for these beliefs, then you don’t need the government’s permission. Go ahead and discriminate, and then face the consequences. If you’re standing in truth, that’s what matters.
But if you aren’t willing to suffer for your faith, that says something, too. It tells me that you don’t really have convictions, you have opinions. You’d be willing to go to jail rather than renounce your faith in Jesus, right? You’d be willing to face a government fine if it meant you didn’t have to murder someone, wouldn’t you? So why do you need government permission to refuse service to LGBT people? Why do you need the state to uphold and defend your religious ideology?
Here’s a question for all of us: Whether religious or not, what are your most deeply held convictions – and what price would you pay to live them out?