Our nation’s commitment to the free exercise of religion is unwavering. Religious organizations are tax-exempt, and gifts to religious organizations are tax deductible, lest the tax code be seen as a burden to the free exercise of religion. Americans are free to assemble with people of like faith and to practice their faith in community without fear of government intervention. People can generally dress, worship, eat, practice morality, and otherwise structure their lives in accordance to their faith. This is a great strength of our nation.
And even the Armed Forces support a Chaplain Corps that provides service members with Chaplains who perform religious services and provide for the free expression of religion of service members. Chaplains also advocate for religious accommodation – to include provisions for a religiously-defined diet, the wearing of particular religiously-prescribed clothing, religiously-defined grooming standards, required head coverings, etc. – within the highly structured and uniform environment of the military.
We are a nation committed to the free exercise of religion.
In this spirit, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in the 1990s to guarantee the free exercise of religion by members of minority religions whose religious free exercise was unintentionally burdened by laws that otherwise had nothing to do with religion. So committed to the free exercise of religion are we that we wanted to make sure that minority religions could practice their faith without other laws would hinder their religious practice.
Yet, just over a week ago, my state passed a law that was designed to protect members of the majority religion (Christianity) from public policies they perceive as burdening their religious beliefs. What began as a law to protect the free exercise of religion from unintentionally burdensome laws has become, in its most recent state-law versions, a law to allow corporations to seek exemption from public accommodation laws on religious freedom grounds.
Of course, we’re talking about businesses owned by Christians who feel it a violation of their religion to provide services to gays and lesbians, particularly to gays and lesbians seeking same-gender wedding services (flowers, cakes, photography, etc.). They believe that providing such services would be an endorsement of a marriage that goes against their religious beliefs.
Yet, there is a big difference between ensuring the free exercise of one’s faith, and guaranteeing that a religious person who owns a business can operate that business with religious exemptions to key public policy commitments of our nation – including that of public accommodation (ie, businesses must serve all customers who walk through the door).
To this degree, the Armed Forces offers a helpful lesson.
The Armed Forces provides a Chaplain Corps to provide for the free expression of religion, and to perform religious services (worship, prayer, sacraments, rites, counseling, etc.) for service members. Yet, this commitment to religious expression within the military does not – cannot – accommodate a service member whose religion forbids the carrying of arms or engaging in combat. Such a citizen simply cannot be a soldier.
Ultimately, there is no constitutional right to join the Armed Forces.
Perhaps this is instructive for Christian business owners who seek exemption from serving certain customers. While there is a constitutional right to practice religion, and while free enterprise is central to our nation’s culture and economy, there is no Constitutional right to be a baker, or a photographer, or a florist. If conducting business according to the laws of our nation causes the business owner to violate their faith, perhaps the business owner need to find a new line of work.
The pacifist Christian cannot expect to keep a job in the military without violating her faith.
The orthodox Jew cannot expect to work in a pork processing plant without violating his faith.
Likewise, the conservative Christian perhaps should not expect to work in the wedding industry, if such work might require her to serve couples that offend their religious sensibilities.
The life of faith requires people of faith to make hard decisions. Will we tithe, spending less on consumer goods, house, or sports for our children? How will we raise our children? What choices will we make for engaging the culture – do we participate in civic holiday celebrations or not? What happens when religious practice conflicts with school or work schedules (an issue of particular concern for minority religions)? For some Christians, perhaps, one new hard decision they face is to find a line of work that would not put them in a position to violate core tenets of their faith.
I do not share the concern about same-gender marriage that some conservative Christians have. Yet, as someone committed to the free exercise of religion, I support the right of people to believe what they feel they are compelled to believe by their faith. Yet, their right to believe does not translate into a right to conduct a business in a way that sidesteps certain laws and commitments of our nation.