How Religious-Freedom Laws Could Come Back to Hurt the Faithful

If conservative Christians really believe they are becoming a marginalized movement, why would they want to disempower marginalized people in the marketplace?

Demonstrators in Phoenix celebrate Governor Jan Brewer's veto of SB 1026. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

“I’d like to purchase a wedding cake,” the glowing young woman says as she clutches the arm of her soon-to-be husband. “We’re getting married at the Baptist church downtown this coming spring.”

“I’m sorry, madam, but I’m not going to be able to help you,” the clerk replies without expression.

“Why not?” the bewildered bride asks.

“Because you are Christians. I am Unitarian and disapprove of your belief that everyone except those within your religion are damned to eternal hell. Your church’s teachings conflict with my religious beliefs. I’m sorry.”

Would conservative Christians support this storeowner’s actions? Because if not, they better think long and hard about advocating for laws that allow public businesses to refuse goods and services to individuals anytime they believe the person’s behavior conflicts with their sincerely held convictions.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed legislation Wednesday that would have allowed the state’s businesses to refuse goods or services if providing them conflicts with their religious beliefs. Though same-sex weddings are the impetus for the bill, it did not specifically mention gays and lesbians. The Arizona Republic editorial board warned Brewer, “The proposed law is so poorly crafted it could allow a Muslim taxi driver to refuse service to a woman traveling alone.”

So with a stroke of the pen, Brewer killed a bill conservative Christian activists—part of her political base—had been championing. Similar legislation also died in Kansas and is being blocked in Mississippi and Georgia. But conservative Christian activists are vowing to keep pressing such bills, claiming that these roadblocks are a temporary setback in their push to gain protection for religious believers who discriminate against customers.

Interestingly, the conservative Christians who support these bills also believe that America is becoming increasingly antagonistic toward members of their own faith. They have long decried the secularizing and pluralizing of America’s public square. They’ve argued that America is, in Robert Bork’s phrase, “slouching toward Gomorrah” and becoming post-Christian or even anti-Christian.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who supports these bills, also once wrote, “The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.”

If Christians really believe they are becoming a marginalized movement, why would they want to disempower marginalized people in the marketplace? It’s easy to codify your own biases when you’re part of the majority and get to be the one refusing services to others. But what if you’re the minority? What if others are turning you away because they think you are the abominable one?

Many Christians believe that the Book of Revelation predicts a coming time of persecution and evil. In the apocalyptic book’s 13th chapter, it is predicted that a time will come when Christians won’t be able to buy or sell in the marketplace. If Christians believe this time is coming, they must also ask, “How might such a reality be realized?” Could it be that they are unwittingly becoming the authors of their own demise?

Conservative Christian activists often argue that these bills put us on a ride down a slippery slope that could lead to the government forcing conservative Christian pastors to perform same-sex weddings against their wills. (Never mind that legal exemptions for houses of worship and pastors are woven deeply into American law or that there is no historical precedent for such predictions.)

But these prophets of doom only acknowledge one side of the slope. They fail to consider how these laws could be used against members of their own communities. If you are able to discriminate against others on the basis of religious conviction, others must be allowed to do the same when you are on the other side of the counter. You can’t have your wedding cake and eat it too.

The ancient King Solomon, a man Christians believe to be the wisest person ever to live, once wrote, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.”

If this is the pit that Christians intend to dig, they better line the bottom with pillows.