Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Descrimination" and "Freedom of Conscience and Religion"

I ask your patience.  I want to work something out, and do so publicly, around recent attempts by state legislatures to protect business owners (and corporations) from being coerced into providing services or products to be used by or in situations that would violate their religious conscience. This is my own wrestling with these issues  On the issue that has at least has been the focus  of the coverage is the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.  I believe that same-sex couples should be afforded the same rights and responsibilities and recognition of their relationship as heterosexual couples, and I find no reason to call that anything other than marriage.  Also, I think what the State recognizes and what is done in a religious ritual, and as Church Sacrament are different things:  related but different things.  Though one should not read any of what follows  as an attempt to argue either side of that argument.

There are a number of issues in play.  The nature of freedom of religion. The nature of business (and are all business and their relationship to their clientele and the public univocal? Should we see sole proprietorship as different than corporation, etc.).  There are also questions of whether or not mainstream media outlets have accurately represented the Arizona bill that was vetoed by the Governor and other similar bills that have been proposed in other states? What are the consequences of seeking to protect religious freedom in this way? Then there are questions of whether or not a Christian should refuse to perform any sort of service if it might contribute to or legitimate an activity or person that violates their religious beliefs or conscience?  What is the witness of Christians in support or opposition to this Arizona bill and others like it?

Of course behind all this there is the debate over same-sex marriage, which appears to be what has precipitated the timing of this and other similar bills, but was not directly mentioned or addressed in the Arizona Bill itself.

Freedom of Religion:  Are their lines to Freedom of Religion? It seems to me that  in practice there clearly are.  For instance polygamy is not legal in the U.S., one can't openly practice polygamy even for religious reasons.  If your religion would require human sacrifice that would be considered murder, and I think even animal sacrifice could run afoul certain animal protection laws. (though we butcher animals for food, so the nature of the distinction is a little lost on me.)  However, the point is that in practice religious freedom isn't without restriction. There's another aspect of this debate: is religious freedom about my holding private opinions and actions in the privacy of my home only, or does it extend to my everyday and public life as well, i.e. running a business?  Some opposition to bills like the Arizona bill implicitly hold that religion should be private something one leaves at the door of one's home and should never be taken into ones place of business.  Some supporters of the Arizona bill and others like it do so because they believe religion is about the whole of ones life and you don't leave it at home when you go to work or go to run your business.  However, this debate within Christian and Evangelical circles is ovr how to exercise one's faith and religion in public and in running a business.  In this sense both agree that religion isn't a private affair and one should be free to exercise one's religion in conducting a business but the disagreement is around how exercise one's Christian faith in public and in business. (more on hat later)

Business:  Are all businesses the same?  For instance is it actually the same situation for a creative business person to refuse certain projects based on their beliefs as for a restaurant or hotel owner to refuse service to a particular class of people. Intuitively I'd say those are different things.  My wife is a costume designer and fashion/wedding dress designer.  We often talk about whether she will take on projects or clients (for clarity she has no issue designing and making clothing for same-sex marriages).  At times discussion has lead us to ask whether we felt she should take on a project or client based on ethical and religious grounds. My wife doesn't take on every project or client that comes through her door, sometimes that is an issue of time or money, sometimes its that she is simply uninterested in the project, although I don't think it has ever happened, we have at least considered her not taking on a project based on a possible conflict with her religious and ethical beliefs and convictions.  I believe she as a business in the line of work she does should be able to turn down a project or client based on any considerations, whether of time, fit with her artistic vision, or ethics and religion.   As a freelance costumer and designer she must discriminate between projects and clients based on a variety of facts some as mundane and uncontroversial as the client is unwilling or unable to pay her fee, or she she does not have time for the client, but there are also artistic merits of the project from her sense of what she wants to put her name to, which could at times include ethical and religious considerations, and that should be acceptable. To my intuition this is qualitatively different from a business like a restaurant or hotel refusing service, or a physician or EMT refusing to treat an individual in need of medical attention.

The exercise of Christian faith in the Public Square and in business:  To some Christians, mainly those who might identify as progressive, the idea that the proper exercise of the Christian faith in business would be to refuse the taking of photographs for a same-sex wedding contradicts any witness to the Gospel and of the Love of Jesus Christ.  Some Christians may see things this way even if they believe that same-sex marriage is in violation of God's will for human beings.  However, if we are arguing for the proper expression of Christian faith in a business or the public square then it seems that we should seek to protect expression of and practice of Christian faith with which we disagree.  There's a problem with saying that by all means Christians should in conducting their business have that conduct be informed by their Christian faith and then say except when we think it is a betrayal of our understanding of the Gospel.

Corporations?:  In terms of Hobby Lobby and other incorporated entities attempting to claim Christian faith of their human representatives is muddy.  But it seems to me that incorporation is a useful but also problematic for issues of ethics and responsibility.  Corporations limit the liability of the human actors who conduct the business and make decisions in a corporation.  In so doing legal precedent has concluded that the legal term "person" can be applied to a corporation.  As I understand it much of the difficulty here is that the legal entity of corporation and legal precedent around that entity is deeply problematic and gets messy real quick when legally they and not the human persons behind them are by definition the real actors in society.  The nature of the corporation is murky to me, so I certainly would accept any correction of my perceptions here.  However, again falling back on my intuition, I'd say that what should be expected of a sole proprietor should be different from what is expected of a corporation. Intuitively I'd say that a corporation shouldn't have protection of religious freedom since it exists to protect liability and thus isn't supposed to be the personal expression of the human persons leading it etc, where as a sole proprietor should be allowed to conduct her or his business according to her religious convictions with as little interference from the state as possible.

The issues raised in these various bills that have come before state legislatures may be more complex than our discourse about them allows.  But this means to both protect religious freedom and protect from discrimination and oppression our discourse should be more careful and nuanced.

Edited 4/1/2015