In churches this week, many Christians marked Maundy Thursday by washing each other’s feet, as Jesus did for his disciples at the Last Supper, including for those who would betray and deny him. Washing the feet of sinners, it seems, is all well and good. Just don’t ask anyone to bake a cake for a gay wedding.
It’s enough to make this Christian weep.
Just in time for Easter and Passover, religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas have ignited a passionate debate across the U.S. But the debate is not really about whether religious freedom should be protected. It is about whether people should have the freedom to disassociate themselves from those they believe to be acting sinfully.
Religious conviction has long been used to justify societal separation. It propped up interracial marriage bans, segregation and slavery. All have fallen before the Constitution. Now the possibility that the Supreme Court will declare same-sex marriage a constitutional right has left those on the religious right scrambling for a carve-out. They are pre-emptively seeking conscientious objector status, in anticipation of losing the cultural war over the 14th Amendment.
No law could ever compel someone to accept a marriage as religiously valid. But if a baker and photographer are prohibited from turning away an interracial couple planning their wedding – and if a Catholic caterer is prohibited from turning away a couple that is remarrying after divorce – so too must the law prevent them from turning away gay couples.
Defenders of Indiana’s law have claimed that it has nothing to do with discrimination, yet legislators there voted down an amendment stating, “the protection of civil rights, or the prevention of discrimination, is a compelling government interest.” After a national uproar and a torrent of criticism from business leaders, they are now correcting that mistake, much to the chagrin of some of the bill’s supporters.
The new push for similar laws in states around the U.S. raises a question: Where were all these champions of religious freedom four years ago, when Muslims in New York City wanted to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan? Back then, conservative political and religious leaders, along with many liberals (including Sen. Harry Reid) argued that the mosque would be an insult to those killed in the 9/11 attacks – a group, of course, that included Muslims.
They held demonstrations and called for government intervention. So much for separation of church and state.
Many of those same critics are now leading the charge for religious freedom laws. Have they seen the light? Wishful thinking. They’ve seen the polls showing that the majority of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians, and they are trying to create legal avenues that would offer them “protection” from that equality.
Yet how is a judge to determine whether an interaction with a gay person burdens a Christian’s faith? And even if it does, how should a judge weight that against the Christian burdens of love for and service to the lowliest of sinners? Legislators are thrusting the court in to the role of theological arbiter, which they are ill-suited to play.
Religious freedom is a fundamental American right, and religious repression is a universal evil. The Puritans who landed on Plymouth Rock were escaping religious persecution, yet set up a theocracy that tolerated no dissent. So it has always been: Majorities tend to repress minorities. And if they can’t be repressed, many Christians are now saying, at least give us the right to defend ourselves in court if we ostracize them. It’s a sad day when Christianity is used as a legal shield to keep sinners at bay, as if we are called to say: No thanks, I'll wash someone else’s feet.
Jesus’ first miracle occurred at a wedding, where he turned water into wine. There is no record of him asking the couple if they followed the rules of the Scriptures. But maybe that’s because they didn’t ask him for a cake.
Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and domestic policy. He previously served as director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.