Conservative Christian groups in Arizona cheered the passage Thursday of legislation that would allow individuals and businesses in the state to deny service to same-sex couples due to religious beliefs.
All eyes have shifted to Governor Jan Brewer, who must now decide whether to sign the bill. Similar legislation died in Kansas last week, but has also been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.
The Arizona law seems to apply to services beyond those tied to weddings, but same-sex weddings are the impetus for these bills. Specifically, they are in response to lawsuits against three different Christians who refused to photograph, bake a cake, and sell flowers for same-sex weddings. The backers of these laws claim that a Christian cannot, in good conscience, provide a good or service for a same-sex wedding because it violates the teachings of Christianity.
If these bills become law, we could see same-sex couples being denied service not just by photographers and florists, but also restaurants and hotels and pretty much anyone else who can tie their discrimination to a religious belief.
Many on the left and right can agree that nobody should be unnecessarily forced to violate their conscience. But in order to violate a Christian’s conscience, the government would have to force them to affirm something in which they don’t believe. This is why the first line of analysis here has to be whether society really believes that baking a wedding cake or arranging flowers or taking pictures (or providing any other service) is an affirmation. This case simply has not been made, nor can it be, because it defies logic. If you lined up 100 married couples and asked them if their florist “affirmed” their wedding, they would be baffled by the question.
Strangely, conservative Christians seem to have little interest in this level of analysis and jump right to complaints about their legal and constitutional rights. It’s not that these rights don’t matter. Rather, they should be a secondary issue for Christians. Before considering legal rights, Christians wrestling with this issue must first resolve the primary issue of whether the Bible calls Christians to deny services to people who are engaging in behavior they believe violates the teachings of Christianity regarding marriage. The answer is, it does not.
Nor does the Bible teach that providing such a service should be construed as participation or affirmation. Yet Christian conservatives continue to claim that it does. So it seems that the backers of these bills don’t actually believe what they are saying. Because if they truly believe that a vendor service is an affirmation, then they need to explain why it is only gay and lesbian weddings that violate their conscience.
If you refuse to photograph one unbiblical wedding, you should refuse to photograph them all. If not, you'll be seen as a hypocrite and as a known Christian, heap shame on the Gospel. As all Christians know, Jesus saved his harshest words for the hypocritical behavior of religious people. So, if Christian wedding vendors want to live by a law the Bible does not prescribe, they must at least be consistent.
Before agreeing to provide a good or service for a wedding, Christian vendors must verify that both future spouses have had genuine conversion experiences and are “equally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14) or they will be complicit with joining righteousness with unrighteousness. They must confirm that neither spouse has been unbiblically divorced (Matthew 19). If one has been divorced, vendors should ask why. Or perhaps you don’t even have to ask. You may already know that the couple’s previous marriages ended because they just decided it wasn’t working, not because there were biblical grounds for divorce. In which case, you can’t provide them a service if you believe such a service is affirming their union.
If your hotel is hosting the wedding and you don’t see rings on both individual’s fingers, you must refuse to rent them only one room. The unmarried couple must remain in separate rooms until after the ceremony. Otherwise, you may be complicit in fornication. And of course, you must not under any circumstances rent a room to a gay or lesbian couple.
These are serious issues to many Christians. So serious, that many pastors will not marry couples that fall into some of these categories.
Performing a marriage ceremony is a case where the first criterion in the analysis is met: it is without question affirming a marriage. Even so, orthodox Christian pastors have not singled out gay weddings in the way that the people backing these bills have. While these pastors won’t perform a gay or lesbian wedding, many also would not perform a wedding where one of the participants was unbiblically divorced, nor would they perform a wedding between a non-believer and a believer or a one between two atheists. Christian wedding vendors and the leaders admonishing them to turn away gay wedding customers seem unconcerned about all these other categories of unbiblical marriages.
The truth is, telling wedding vendors to only provide goods and services for “biblical” ceremonies is an exercise in futility. There is not a baker or florist or photographer in existence who hasn’t provided services for an unbiblical wedding. Perhaps that’s why Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, stated in a column this week that a photographer should refuse to film a same-sex wedding but for all other weddings, “need not investigate … whether the wedding you are photographing is Christ-honoring.”
Apparently, ignorance is bliss. This makes sure to put just one kind of “unbiblical” marriage in a special category. Why? Moore uses the example of a pastor presiding over an unbiblical heterosexual wedding. He says that would be “wrong” but it would still be a marriage recognized by God, whereas a same-sex wedding would be wrong and not recognized by God.
So, Moore–a sincere Christian and a leader we respect–is telling Christian vendors that it’s okay to do something “wrong” by providing services for a heterosexual wedding as long as they don’t know its unbiblical. But do we really believe that Christians don’t know that many weddings they provide service for are unbiblical without “investigating?” That’s a real stretch.
Rather than protecting the conscience rights of Christians, this looks a lot more like randomly applying religious belief in a way that discriminates against and marginalizes one group of people, while turning a blind eye to another group. It’s hard to believe that Jesus was ever for that.
Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars and Jesus is Better Than You Imagined. His writing has been published by The Atlantic, USA Today, National Journal, Christianity Today, and The Washington Post. He holds a Master of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Theology from Emory University. Follow him: @jonathanmerritt.