Friday, February 28, 2014

Of Cakes and Consciences

The week's big news comes out of Arizona, where Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would allow religious business owners to refuse to serve customers if such service would compromise their consciences. Religious liberty came under fire when a judge in neighboring New Mexico ruled against a photographer who refused to take pictures at a same-sex wedding ceremony.  Then a baker in Colorado refused to bake a cake for a similar celebration in Denver and got sued. Although the baker believes that creating same-sex wedding cakes would be "displeasing God and acting contrary to the teachings of the Bible," the judge ruled against him.

Rulings like these troubled Christians across the country, including neighboring Arizona, and the  legislature there responded with a law to protect conscientious objectors in that state. The Republican governor vetoed it, however, arguing that the "legislation seeks to protect businesses, yet the business community is overwhelmingly opposed to the law."

It is no wonder that the Arizona business community is "overwhelmingly" opposed to the law. They know what happened to "Duck Dynasty" when Phil Robertson quoted a Bible verse about sexual sins. Arizona is a beautiful, desolate state that depends heavily on tourism--and the Governor knows that a public backlash against Arizona might send the whole state back into recession.  If one baker refuses to bake a cake for one couple for religious reasons, that couple suffers. If every politically-correct corporation cancels next year's Arizona convention for political reasons, the whole state suffers. Given the choice between protecting Christian bakers and keeping the Super Bowl in Phoenix, the Arizona business community is clear on its priorities. "Culture wars" are bad for business!

The Arizona law wasn't specifically written to protect Christians or punish homosexuals. It applied to any believer who could not comply with an otherwise-valid law for conscientious reasons. It would help the Muslim barber who refused to give a woman a man's haircut or the Orthodox Jew who closes his liquor store all day Saturday and then can't sell his wares until 1:00 p.m. Sunday. It wouldn't do much for McDonald's or Microsoft (big businesses don't have consciences), but it would do a lot for Roman Catholics who believe that oral contraceptives flush a living human being from the womb, and therefore cannot pay for insurance that provides the Pill to their employees.

The argument against religious freedom is simple--if your personal beliefs prevent you from doing one job, do another. If you don't like killing people, don't join the Army. If you don't eat pork, don't apply at the sausage factory. If you don't approve of same-sex marriages, try baking pies instead of cakes.  It may be a good argument in theory, but it fails in practice. How does it work for the widow whose only income comes from rent from apartments she owns, which she only rents to married couples? How does it work for the photographer, whose only marketable skill is selling pictures that people mostly only buy for weddings?

Let's apply the Arizona situation to our own region. Our economy here in the Potomac Highlands is heavily dependent on tourism and turkeys. All it takes is one ruling from some government agency and our poultry farmers could find themselves facing impossible costs--and we're just one court case away from same-sex weddings here in West Virginia. It may not be that long before folks who rent cabins out to honeymooners have to decide how they feel about this issue.

So--what do West Virginians think about religious freedom? If you had to choose between a West Virginia Super Bowl and some stubborn fundamentalist who will not serve a same-sex couple, which would you pick? What about the Muslim parent who won't let her daughter wear shorts in gym class? What about the Jehovah's Witness who insists on knocking on your door when you're sleeping late on Saturday?

It's easy to fight for popular freedoms. That's what politicians do--that's why they keep on getting elected. That's what happened in Arizona--they were all for freedom until they realized it might cost them something.

Is that what we want in West Virginia?

Arizona can have the Super Bowl. I'll take our mountains and our people, all of them--hillbillies, hippies, prosperous poultry farmers, poor widows. I'll take the same-sex couple raising goats up the hollow, and the Primitive Baptist who can't sleep at night at the thought of all that sin. The right to do what you think is right includes the right to oppose what you think is wrong--even if the rest of the world disagrees with you. That's what freedom means--and mountaineers are always free.