Opinion

The pizza shop lesson about freedom

Isn’t it interesting how, in today’s America, some of the most outspoken critics of bigotry turn out themselves to be manifestly intolerant and determined to visit cruelty on others because they harbor different opinions?

These inquisitors often parade their outrage as a morally superior defense of rights, and it’s sometimes surely the case that iniquities they themselves experienced or witnessed reside at the heart of their fury.

But that’s no excuse for some of what transpired during a fierce, bullying attack on a new Indiana law that aimed to protect crucial liberties. Particularly objectionable – and a notable object lesson – was the threat to the very existence of an Indiana business because of nothing more than an owner voicing her religious scruples.

The law in question, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is basically the same as a federal law around since 1993 and 19 other state laws. It says that, when the government is faced with a conflict between freedom of religion and another public value, it should dent that freedom to the least extent necessary and then only if the other value is of compelling state interest.

That was enough to send some into a frenzy of error-plagued screeching that the law fostered anti-gay apartheid. It didn’t. Guess whatever you want about the motives of the legislators, but nothing in this law permitted discrimination against someone because the person is gay. It is not even clear that the original law would have allowed the much-discussed possibility of a bakery refusing to cater a gay marriage. A legislative rewrite enacted under media duress does make it clearer that the cake must be baked.

Is that OK? Does a baker or anyone else have no right to worry about the fundamental redefining of an ages-old institution, to believe something sacred is being violated and that any means of abetting the change would be a violation of his deepest convictions?

True, something like that would be a minority view these days, and even many church-going Christians would disagree. A number of emotionally persuasive, reasonable-sounding gay activists and others have clearly convinced a majority of Americans that gay marriage is fair marriage. It now seems likely to become a nationwide reality.

But, as some of those activists concur, it hardly follows that those still objecting as a matter of sincere moral belief should be compelled through the risk of onerous fines to participate in the institutional transformation. Should the owners of a bakery committed to gay marriage be compelled to supply a cake for a group of citizens rallying against gay marriage? No. That would be equally wrong.

Allowing choice in such cases is not the same as allowing oppression. What would be mostly at stake for the cake-deprived gay couple is the inconvenience of having to find a willing bakery from a vast majority hardly proclaiming their abhorrence of making money that way. Compare that to the mighty slam at Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Ind.

A TV reporter doing a story on the Indiana law asked an owner if she would sell pizzas for a gay wedding and she said no, describing the establishment as Christian. Then came the terror hounds with their snarling threats of death, of arson, of destroying the business, all of it sufficient for the owners to figure the shop’s days were done and that theirs might be, too, if they did not stay out of sight.

Ah, but some worthy souls then quickly raised a Memories Pizza gift of more than $840,000 using an Internet website appealing to contributors who clearly subscribe to something vital to our American future. It’s basically the idea that it is not permissible to try to ruin lives because of someone saying something you do not like, that hate is vile whichever direction it comes from, that argumentation is one thing and cowing others something else, that freedom and kindness matter.

Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at speaktojay@aol.com.

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