Christian Living

Refusing to Serve Individuals vs. Refusing to Participate in Events

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 04/02/2015

When people say Christians want to “refuse service to gays,” the implication is that Christians don’t want to engage in economic transactions with people because of their sexual orientation—as if they’re turning people away with, “We don’t serve your kind here.”

This is not the case, and it hasn’t been the case in any of the well-known incidents involving photographers, bakers, etc. that I’m aware of. Consider the story of Barronelle Stutzman, the florist in Washington:

Robert Ingersoll and his husband, Curt Freed, said they had spent thousands of dollars and had been buying flowers from Arlene’s for nearly a decade when Ingersoll asked Stutzman to provide flowers for their wedding in 2013.

Stutzman declined, writing in a Facebook post later that it was because of “my relationship with Jesus Christ.”

“I believe, biblically, that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Stutzman wrote. “That is my conviction, yours may be different.”

Stutzman said Ingersoll gave her a hug, said he “respected my opinion,” and left.

[The Washington Times adds that she “referred the men to several other local florists.”]

Does that sound like “We don’t serve your kind here”? Please note that a gay couple “spent thousands of dollars and had been buying flowers from Arlene’s for nearly a decade.” That’s absolute proof that Stutzman was not discriminating against them on the basis of their sexual orientation. She merely didn’t want to participate in a same-sex wedding.

Why is there no room in our society for this?

Aaron Shafovaloff sent me an illustration this morning that he uses to help people understand the distinction between not serving a person because he is gay and not participating in a same-sex wedding (an event supporting and celebrating a view of marriage that is deeply objected to for numerous reasons):

A heterosexual couple walks into a marketing and print shop. They ask to have a banner designed and printed to promote an event for some friends. The event is the monthly “Advocacy Meetup for Genderless Marriage.” The group, by principled extension, promotes same-sex marriage, since they believe marriage is a genderless institution.

At this particular advocacy meetup, only heterosexual couples happen to attend. And the couple in the shop asking for the banner happen to be orthodox Jews who believe marriage is a gendered institution. They are ordering and purchasing the banner as a favor to liberal friends promoting the meetup.

Both the potential seller and buyers are heterosexual religious conservatives who believe that marriage is a gendered institution. Yet the owner of the marketing and print shop refuses service. Should this business be successfully sued or penalized? Should any parties be able to collect damages? Why or why not?

Think about it: For the florist, baker, or photographer who wanted to follow their conscience, it didn’t ultimately matter who was ordering their services. Rather, what mattered to them was the morally objectionable message and the nature of the event being celebrated and promoted.

One could just as easily flip this illustration around and make it about a person who is for same-sex marriage declining to make a banner for a rally promoting man-woman-only marriage. In both cases, the sexual orientation of the individual placing the order is irrelevant. In both cases, it’s their convictions about the meaning of marriage that the owners don’t want to compromise, not their hatred or bigotry towards anyone because of their sexual orientation.

Some are saying, “So what if participating in a same-sex marriage goes against a person’s conscience? It’s wrong to object to same-sex marriage, so it’s okay to force her to do the right thing.” This attitude reflects a low view of human dignity. Instead, I agree with Luther that “it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” This is the Christian view.

In Romans 14, Paul stresses the importance of not violating our conscience when he cautions us not to engage in anything we’re not convinced is okay—that is, anything we can’t, in good conscience, do to the glory of God.* He says, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.... [T]o him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” We’re not to “put a stumbling block in a brother’s way,” “wounding his conscience” by causing him to do something he believes he shouldn’t do—even, Paul says, if that person is refraining from doing something that, in reality, is okay for him to do. You can’t “do all to the glory of God” if you’re not convinced what you’re doing brings glory to God. It’s an affront to human dignity to force a person into this situation.

This is why I’m strongly against forcing any person, regardless of his beliefs, to violate his conscience, and why I’m for RFRAs (not to mention the First Amendment), which are meant to respect this truth about human dignity. People should not be forced to promote or participate in events they profoundly disagree with. They should not be forced by law to violate their conscience. As Aaron concluded:

Compelling someone else’s speech (through creative or expressive services) can be a soft form of slavery.... To argue in essence, “But giving people liberties and freedoms might enable them to act unethically toward others” is fundamentally to argue against the Constitution. Liberties and freedoms require vulnerabilities and risks that are worth having.

The First Amendment is meant to protect us from people who think they can perfect society if only they’re given enough control over everyone’s words and actions. Accepting the reality of diversity, even with its risks and imperfections, is what a free society does.


*Paul is referring specifically to the Old Testament holiness code here, but the same principle should apply to unclear moral situations, as well.