For a person like myself who cherishes both religious freedom and LGBT equality, the recent discussions over state laws designed to allow religious people and institutions to discriminate against LGBT people are somewhat vexing.
Let me state outright that I do not believe laws should allow this type of discrimination. That said, I have to admit that I feel sympathy for people who feel that their religious principles are compromised. As someone who opposes the death penalty and military intervention on religious principles, I feel that my U.S. tax dollars are being used against my religious principles when a federal prisoner is executed or when our government has cavalierly become involved in overseas military expeditions.
A recent New York Times news article caught my eye and interest on this topic. The headline: “To Keep Free of Federal Reins, Wyoming Catholic College Rejects Student Aid.” A small, conservative Catholic school in Wyoming has rejected federal funding so that they do not have to comply with regulations on social issues which they disagree with because of their beliefs. The story reported:
“Citing concerns about federal rules on birth control and same-sex marriage, the school decided this winter to join a handful of other religious colleges in refusing to participate in the federal student-aid programs that help about two-thirds of students afford college. For students here, the decision means no federal loans, work-study money or grants to finance their annual $28,000 tuition, which includes housing in gender-segregated dorms and three meals in the school’s lone dining hall.”
While, of course, I disagree with this institution’s beliefs about same-gender marriage, for one thing, I admit that I find this decision to be an intriguing answer to the current religious liberty question.
What has bothered me for a long time about conservative religious freedom advocates is that they often want it both ways. They want to be able to have government aid or contracts, but not to live up to the obligations that come with such support. So I have a certain amount of admiration for religious people who are willing to sacrifice something because of their beliefs.
This Wyoming decision reminds me of the many Catholic peace advocates that I have admired over the years who have resisted paying federal military taxes. Sometimes such peace people keep a low income so that their federal tax obligation is minimal to nil. Sometimes, they have done jail time for their beliefs. Until hearing of this Wyoming case (and the examples of several other religious colleges, Catholic ones included, which the Times article cites), I have not seen a similar interest in sacrificing for principle on the part of conservative religious individuals or groups.
At the business level, one way the religious freedom question plays out is that establishments such as photographers or bakers want the ability to deny service to same-gender couples’ weddings. It seems that one recourse they can have to live out their religious principles is to refrain from not providing business services for any weddings.
The logic behind such a suggestion is that since same-gender marriage has become the law in many locations, it is incumbent on businesses licensed in a locale to provide services for all people. After all, the state is providing the business with the opportunity to exist within its borders; it is reasonable to expect that the business would follow the state’s laws, including non-discrimination laws. If, for religious reasons, a business does not feel they can follow the law of the land, they could simply refuse to provide that service to any one.
Of course, such a decision would involve sacrifice on their part. Weddings, in particular, are big money-makers. Yet, abstaining and sacrificing are appropriate religious responses to situations where people are motivated by faith principles. Discrimination is not.
Such decisions will not solve the religious freedom questions that our nation faces. It doesn’t solve the problem of what to do about legitimately identified religious organizations (churches, for example) and how they conduct their employment policies. But the route of sacrifice looks like it could be a viable alternative for conservative religious leaders who feel they are being harassed by doing business transactions which they feel violate their beliefs.
Another alternative would be what I do for issues like the death penalty and military intervention, for which I have religiously principled objections. I follow the laws while I do what I can through civil channels to influence them. Is my religious freedom impinged upon? Yes, but I also recognize that we do not live under a religiously-based government, so I have to find the best way to be in dialogue with those with whom I disagree. The strategy of dialogue is also a valid religious response.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry