The Kansas House of Representatives, you may have heard, recently passed a rather controversial piece of legislation. If made law, it would now be legal in Kansas for businesses to refuse service to gay couples if such service contradicted their “sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or entity regarding sex or gender.”
Nominally this is directed at businesses who deal with weddings, so as to provide legal cover for Christian florists or bakers to turn down gay customers without the threat of being sued, as has happened in other states.
Just to cover all of their bases though, the Kansas house made sure that it covered not only the entire private sector, wedding-related or otherwise, but government as well. Theoretically speaking, any state government employee, from the DMV to the park service, could refuse to provide services to a gay couple and cite religious freedom to protect themselves from legal consequences.
There is no need to worry too much about this particular bill, as it looks unlikely to pass the Kansas state senate, but it will undoubtedly not be the last.
The real problem here is the underlying logic at play, namely, that the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution includes in it, the right to violate the civil rights of those whose theological views differ from your own.
A significant number of American Christians believe themselves to be this nation’s oppressed minority. This may seem absurd to anyone who knows anything about the demographics of the United States, but consider what one of the bill’s proponents said about why he supported it:
“Discrimination is horrible. It’s hurtful … It has no place in civilized society, and that’s precisely why we’re moving this bill.”
Beyond showing that irony is dead in the state of Kansas, this quote also shows that some people legitimately believe that a bill, which relegates gays to second-class citizens is an anti-discrimination measure.
The theological basis of this alone boggles the mind. Jesus Christ was a man who fraternized with the exiled and oppressed within society, yet some of his modern followers seem to believe that He stood for a refusal to let people who disagree with your interpretation of Leviticus buy flowers.
Imagine how the New Testament would read if this was true: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. Except for gays. They don’t count. Feel free to exclude them from whatever you want.”
Yet I do not deny that forcing all business to serve gay customers, whether they like it or not, clearly contradicts the principle of religious freedom. It does.
This is what political philosophers call the paradox of tolerance. A free society cannot be tolerant of everything, as some beliefs and ideologies are clearly incompatible with a having a free society.
As Karl Popper once wrote, “If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
People can hold whatever absurd beliefs they want. I may not agree with them, but it is their right as Americans to have them. The great thing about this country, though, is that a right that they don’t have is the right to push those beliefs onto other people.