But they are not.
Some opponents of the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” make the outlandish assertion that this bill would allow a person to be “refused service at a restaurant, not allowed to shop at a grocery store,” and other sweeping generalizations. But the words “restaurant” or “grocery store” appear nowhere in the bill, nor does any provision for those businesses to keep people out.
HB1523 does not create any protection for businesses that deny service to a person based on sexual orientation. The bill is confined almost exclusively to wedding-related services that may be declined, and only under certain circumstances.
Here’s why that’s in the bill. Many merchants, such as bakers, and many professionals, such as attorneys, have said they gladly serve their customers regardless of sexual orientation, but they draw the line at assisting in a wedding ceremony, which they consider a sacrament or act of worship, if that ceremony would violate their beliefs about God’s design for that form of worship.
Newspaper Guilty of Denial of Service?
Let’s look at another form of denying service to a person seeking to exercise a Constitutional right. Should I be able to sue the Clarion-Ledger if it chooses not to print my comments? That’s a “denial of service” for my right to free speech – a right which is explicitly stated in the Constitution.
If you oppose HB1523 – and if you want to be consistent – you would have to believe that I could sue, or the government could punish the newspaper for denying my right to express my views in the newspaper I chose.
There is a provision in the bill to protect public employees who express their views about marriage on their own time. This would apply to a situation like the one in Atlanta, where Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was fired because he wrote a Bible study on his own time that briefly referenced the Bible’s views on sexual morality.
After the Roe v. Wade decision, many states enacted conscience protections for health professionals whose deeply-held beliefs would not allow them to assist in performing an abortion. HB1523 is a similar response to a Supreme Court decision on another issue that created potential conflicts for people of faith.
Who is Forcing Whose Views on Others?
Our society, I hope, would never be alright with the government forcing an African-American t-shirt shop to design and print shirts for a Klan parade, even if that parade is legally organized. We would never think of forcing a Jewish baker to make a swastika-adorned cake for a neo-Nazi wedding, which is also legal to hold. Why would we think it’s OK to force a religious business owner to assist in a wedding ceremony that violates his or her deeply-held beliefs, simply because it is now legal to hold such events?
HB1523 is not forcing anyone’s views on anyone else. On the contrary, it is protecting people from having someone else’s views forced on them to violate the tenets of their faith regarding marriage.
Some have said the bill pits one person’s religious views against another, but consider the effect of each: a person who “denies service” is not preventing a same-sex couple from exercising their right to get married. (Circuit Clerks must ensure that a marriage license is issued “without impediment or delay,” or they do not qualify for the protections in the bill.)
But if the couple prevails, it is preventing the objector from exercising his or her freedom of religion. HB1523 is a narrowly-tailored measure that provides a reasonable balance for those competing rights.
If we head down the road of the government forcing us to abandon our religious beliefs, especially when reasonable alternatives are available, where will it end? What will be left of the freedom of religion?
» Forest Thigpen is president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, an independent think tank based in Jackson.
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