Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stand with the Outcast

I want to start by saying something that should be obvious: Religious discrimination is an awful, awful thing.

It is a horrible thing to demean someone because you don't like her religious beliefs. It is a horrible thing to demean someone because you don't like what you assume her religious beliefs to be. Religion is one of those things that define us as individuals and as communities. Belittle a person's faith, and you are not only belittling and demeaning them, you are belittling something that defines them, inspires them, and connects them not only to the Transcendent but to the teeming masses of humanity.

Mocking that, belittling that, or discriminating against a person because of their religious beliefs is wrong, wrong, wrong. I wish everyone could see that.

Which is what makes what is happening in Washington state right now so aggravating.

Washington state Sen. Sharnon Brown (R-Kennewick) is sponsoring a bill that would grant an exemption to the state's anti-discrimination laws, so that business owners could refuse to serve customers if doing so would violate their religious principles. As reported by Rachel La Corte of the Associated Press, the bill has its genesis in a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union has filed against florist Barronelle Stutzman.

Stutzman, you may recall, made national news on March 1 when she refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding, because she believes homosexuality to be sinful, and gay marriage immoral. (Stutzman has told TV station KEPR that she is a Christian. I regret that this disclosure does not surprise me.)

Of the law that Stutzman ran afoul of, and that Brown is trying to amend, Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington state put it like this: "The government is now saying if you have a conviction about an issue that we happen to disagree with, then you as a business owner are going to be fined or shut down because of that. People should and do have the right to their own convictions."

Well, yes; people do have a right to their convictions. There is nothing in the law that says that people can't have their convictions. Our Constitution guarantees all of us the right to our convictions, and even our right to express those convictions. That's a cornerstone of our free society, and it's been put to the test repeatedly; only last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of Westboro Baptist Church to proclaim its virulent hatred of gays even at funerals.

It's really hard not to appreciate the irony here, that Brown essentially is arguing that Stutzman has a right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and that denying her this right is discriminatory. But let's be clear about this: No one's convictions give them the right to decide who they'll do business with. If Stutzman and her attorney want to argue that she has that right, then they're on shaky ground. Deep-South segregationists also wanted to decide whom they would and wouldn't do business with, and they also claimed that their convictions were based in Scripture.

I'm also really curious to know what Bible Stutzman and her supporters are reading from that give divine sanction to take this stand. It's safe to say that Jesus encourages his followers to stand by their convictions, but it's also plain to see that the most basic conviction Jesus wants us to have is one of compassion.

See a man who's blind, heal him. Bump into a woman who has been bleeding for years, then you not only heal her, but you also stop and pay a little attention to her. Hug a leper, commend the faith of a heretic, eat and drink with gluttons and drunkards, love the hookers, and welcome the outcasts. Whatever Jesus' view on the righteousness of any given behavior, the gospels make one thing clear time and time again: Jesus valued people more than he was bothered by their sin.

It's worth noting that there was one group in the gospels that was really offended by the sins the people committed, and they were shocked that Jesus allowed sinners to come near him. They would go to great lengths to make sure that people knew what God thought of their sin, so that they could repent and be forgiven. I suspect they would approve of Stutzman's decision not to serve a gay couple.

This group was called the Pharisees, and Jesus had some harsh words for them. Their words were even harsher; and, in the end, they had him killed.

Perhaps no one gets to the heart of the issue like Victoria Childress. Back in 2011, Childress, who runs a bakery from her Iowa home, refused to sell a wedding cake to a lesbian couple. As she explained to KCCI-TV, "It is my right, and it's not to discriminate against them. It's not so much to do with them, it's to do with me and my walk with God and what I will answer [to] him for."

Exactly. Christians believe that we ultimately will stand before God and have to answer for the choices we made, including the choice to devalue the worth of another human being because we don't approve of their lifestyle, exactly the choice that Jesus rejected, and exactly the choice he castigated the Pharisees for making.

Discrimination is wrong. Cloaking it in the mantle of religion and claiming divine sanction for it is even worse. We need to stop justifying morally reprehensible behavior, and we need to hold accountable those who want it to be legal.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission. All rights reserved.