by Matthew Boardman
Indiana’s “religious freedom” law allows business owners to refuse service based on their religious beliefs, a fact which many fear will result in widespread discrimination.The law is accompanied by a question long avoided by the court: do private businesses possess the same rights as individuals?
At first glance, a relatively recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court would seem to suggest that they do.
In 2012, Hobby Lobby went to court against a mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which requires businesses to provide access to contraceptives for their female employees. Hobby Lobby’s owners argued that their religious beliefs did not support the use of certain contraceptives, therefore, the ACA contraceptive mandate violated their religious freedom.
In June of 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in the case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The decision created a precedent which allowed certain businesses to seek exemption from the ACA’s contraceptive mandate due to religious beliefs.
The court’s decision is by no means all inclusive. Only closely held corporations—corporations which tend to be owned by a small group of individuals and the shares of which are unlikely to be traded—can file for exemption. Additionally, they must provide an alternative plan which still supports the law’s interest.
For that reason (and several others), the decision does not provide a clear answer to whether or not corporations possess first amendment rights. Such a verdict is slow in coming and will only be clarified piece by piece as the court makes smaller rulings over a period of time.
In regard to Indiana’s so called “religious freedom” law, the question is: to what extent do businesses possess religious freedom?
Suppose businesses have the same religious freedom rights as individuals. That being so, they can subscribe to any belief they wish and act upon such beliefs, so long as the actions do not directly harm others. A man may harm another man and claim to have done so because his religious beliefs compelled him to, but his religious freedom does not exempt him from punishment for having harmed another person. Does that same logic apply to religious business owners and refusing service?
At first, the refusal of service may seem a trite concern. Possibly insulting, likely an inconvenience, but a violation of the law? Surely not.
Go back in time, a few short decades ago, to find a parallel situation. African Americans were denied service by businesses of all kinds, simply for the color of their skin. Racism is undeniably deleterious, even when it does not inflict bodily harm. Recall, too, that some white supremacists cited their religious beliefs as justification for their racism.
History proves that refusal of service can be harmful. It cultivates an environment ripe for prejudice and discrimination.
As such, the right to refuse service based on religious beliefs is far too perilous a law to risk. “Religious beliefs” is a vastly open-ended term, which makes it susceptible to misuse. Many people would be denied service under a false pretense of acting on one’s religious beliefs, when in reality, the refusal of service is nothing more than personal prejudice.
What of the cases in which refusal of service truly comes from conflict with genuinely held religious beliefs?
Consider the case of Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers. In 2013, Washington state florist and owner of Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts, Baronnelle Stutzman, refused to cater a same-sex wedding. Stutzman had served both men for years, fully aware of their sexual orientation, but she refused to provide services for their nuptials.
“I am sorry. I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ,” Stutzman said.
Given that Stutzman had served both men for years, her refusal of service in this instance can logically be attributed to how she views marriage.
In traditional Christianity, marriage is a religious ceremony: it is a union between man, woman and God. With such a perception of marriage, it is clear why Stutzman could not service a same-sex wedding: they do not view marriage as a union under God. At least, not in the same way Stutzman does.
However, there is a flaw in such rationale. If Stutzman could not cater a same-sex wedding because the couple does not view marriage as a Christian ceremony, then by the same logic, she should be unable to cater any non-Christian’s wedding. There is no record of Stutzman doing so.
“If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same-sex couples the same product or service,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Stutzman’s refusal of service came from genuinely held religious beliefs, but it remains discriminatory. She did not refuse service out of malice, and it is likely she wasn’t even aware of the flaw in her rationale. Even so, the reason for her refusal of service can be isolated to the couple’s sexual orientation. Her case is one of many which proves a “religious freedom” law for business owners cannot be effectively or justly exercised.
Such a law may come with the best intentions, but in the end, it is impracticable and dangerous.
The fact of the matter is, when private citizens enter the business world, they enter a very diverse world. It is neither a spiritual nor secular realm; it is a thorough blending of both. Refusing service remains an owner’s right, but the reason for the refusal cannot be based on unalterable personal characteristics. That makes it discrimination, and as history has proven time and again, systematic discrimination is anything but just.
Private businesses may possess many of the same rights as individuals, but Indiana’s “religious freedom” law and others like it are not the solution to protecting those rights. They are a step backward, inciting discriminatory practices and creating more conflict than peace. The so called “religious freedom” law does not protect Americans; it jeopardizes individuals’ right to live freely.