What Arizona’s “Religious Freedom” Bill Really Means

A bill has passed in Arizona to allow a business owner to refuse products or services to anyone due to their deeply held religious beliefs. An example of this bill in action would be a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. In a state like Oregon, the gay couple could sue the bakery and would probably win on grounds of discrimination (This scenario has already occurred). In Arizona, the bakery has the right to deny their services under this new law. The bill has not been signed into law at the time of this writing, so it may not become a reality. But, I have a major problem with this bill for many reasons and from different perspectives. [UPDATE: Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill on February 26, 2014.]

1. Religious Freedom

The major point of this bill is that business owners will cite their religious freedom as reason for denying products or services. But is this really what religious freedom is? In the United States, the First Amendment states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

There is no established religion in the United States, and this makes it clear that would be a violation of the Constitution. Likewise, there is no prohibition of the free exercise of whatever religion one chooses to follow. But how does this work in the real world? Clearly, the United States has had to deal with the issue of “free exercise” many times since our country’s founding.

In the U.S. Supreme Court case, Reynolds v. United States in 1878, the courts were deciding on the issue of polygamy. Does religion supersede the law of the land? Can a man be legally married to multiple women because his religion says it is permitted, even though the law states there are to be only two parties in a legally binding marriage? Ultimately, they decided this was not the case. People are free to religious opinion and belief, but still have to obey the laws. Chief Justice Waite wrote in his opinion on the case,

Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. […] Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and, in effect, to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.

There are laws in the United States that protect discrimination, but not always for LGBT people. According to the Human Rights Campaign, “Twenty-one states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.” Oregon has laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which is why the bakery lost their case. Arizona, however, has no laws protecting LGBT people. This new bill makes it even harder to protect the rights of LGBT people. 

Is a Christian businessperson serving an openly gay person in a business a violation of religious freedom? I do not believe it is. That gay person is not stopping the Christian businessperson from practicing their faith. That gay person is not telling the Christian businessperson to stop being a Christian. They are simply requesting a product or service. It is the duty of the Christian businessperson to offer their product or service to anyone who walks through their door. If they deny products or services without just cause, it is discrimination.

2. What would Jesus do?

Another thing that baffles me is the fact that these are primarily Christians supporting this law. Why are they supporting it? They feel that people should be free to practice their religion however they choose and if it means denying service to a gay person, then they should be free to do so. But would Jesus do that? It’s very clear from his life that he would not.

When Jesus fed the 5,000, he did not pick and choose who would get fed. He fed everyone who was there. It was his disciples who wanted to send the people away, but Jesus told them “No, we will feed them. They are hungry.”

When Jesus encountered the Samaritan women, he made a statement by interacting with her at all because at the time, Jews refused to have anything to do with Samaritans. He didn’t turn away from her because of who she was; he embraced her.

Jesus had nothing stopping him from giving to anyone who needed anything from him. It was the Pharisees who did that. Simply put, the lawmakers who voted to pass this bill in Arizona are equivalent to the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.

3. What does the Bible say?

If the life of Jesus wasn’t convincing enough, what about the Bible in general? Is there anything in the Bible to support this type of action by Arizona lawmakers?

Be hospitable to one another without complaining.

1 Peter 4:9 (HCSB)

How can one be hospitable when one refuses to provide products or services to another? Are they not complaining about the other person in their dismissal of their worthiness to receive products and services?

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

- James 2:1 (NLT)

There is clear favoritism if Christians are giving products and services to some people, but not to others. This is the complete opposite of what Jesus taught his disciples during his life.

(But suppose someone tells you, “This meat was offered to an idol.” Don’t eat it, out of consideration for the conscience of the one who told you. It might not be a matter of conscience for you, but it is for the other person.) For why should my freedom be limited by what someone else thinks? If I can thank God for the food and enjoy it, why should I be condemned for eating it?

1 Corinthians 10:28-30 (NLT)

This goes the other way, too. There are plenty of LGBT Christians out there, so why should their freedom be limited by what these Arizona lawmakers think? As my friend Linda pointed out, “Every individual has the right to decide for his/herself what their own conscience gives them the freedom to do. We cannot be another person’s Holy Spirit, deciding for another how they must live their life.”

4. What is the line?

This point is completely hypothetical. But it makes one wonder, what is the line? Who decides what is a “deeply held religious belief” and if it is worthy to use in a discrimination case? Does this apply to anything a religious person deems unacceptable by their beliefs? Would a restaurant refuse service if they found out the couple were adulterous? Can a donut shop refuse to serve their sweet treats to an overweight person? Or is it just LGBT people this law applies to? If so, how far does that go? Can a doctor refuse to administer medicine to a gay person? Can a manager at a fast food joint refuse service to two women who may not be gay but are simply assumed so? Will non-Christian business owners start turning away Christians and get away with it for the same rule?

This entire situation is disheartening. I pray that this bill does not get signed into law. It is a step in the wrong direction, and brings back “separate but equal” style ideals. No one wants to go back there.

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