by David Hafter
It’s dangerous; yes, it’s true to mess with someone’s certitude, What’s the point of saying, “I don’t know”? – David Hafter (from the song, Feet of Clay)
You can legislate tolerance but not kindness, nor common sense.
Now that the initial heat has died down over the Indiana debacle (the spurious attempt to legislate discrimination against the LGBT community through the so called Religious Freedom Act) let’s try to make some sense not only of what happened there and is/was being tried in other places. After finding a loophole in public policy regarding civil rights, those people inclined to deny equal rights to all non-heterosexuals attempted to do so under the umbrella of ‘religious freedom’. This was quickly and effectively squashed by the one thing capable of doing so: the almighty dollar. When it was made clear to the Governor that his stunt was going to cost Indiana big bucks and cover everyone living in his state with an aura of bigotry and social ugliness, he caved in, claiming in vain that he was being misunderstood. He gutted the measure of its capacity to discriminate against non-heterosexuals and then put his feet up to watch the Final Four – which would have been the last time that event was held in Indianapolis had he not immediately back-peddled on the issue.
As a card carrying liberal, I am really trying to ‘understand the other side.’ My first inclination was to throw everyone supporting that law into bed with the truly repugnant and hateful Westboro Baptist Church, the people who picket the funerals of deceased soldiers claiming that since their actions support a society which tolerates gays they deserved to die. Ugh. But that can’t be true of everyone who supports the Religious Freedom Act. I had to look for positions based on less extreme beliefs.
The problem with the word religion nowadays is that it is too broad a concept to be meaningful in a practical sense. It would be far more accurate to separate the fundamentalist elements from the practical context of any given religion. For example, to lump all Muslims together with Islam’s most radical fundamentalists – because the Quran has passages which approve of their horrible behavior – is disingenuous. The Old Testament also blesses what most people would consider heinous, murderous crimes for forbidden behaviors (including gay sex). Do I lump all Christians or Jews together with the fundamentalist elements of either faith? Of course not. I doubt that you do, either.
But some do. Bill Maher always looks perplexed and frustrated when a guest on his show tries to get him to separate fundamentalists from ordinary believers. He points out, correctly, that a person need not be religious to treat others with kindness, dignity and respect. However, he is throwing out the baby with the bathwater – the baby, in this case, being the source of comfort and ethical guidelines most religious people derive from their faith. It is true that both the ordinarily religious and the fundamentalists share a relationship with the same religious texts. But that is where the comparison stops. Why?
Most religious people, when it comes to the Bible, the Quran or other foundational texts of religion, are what I (respectfully) call cherry-pickers. They pick out and enjoy the healthy and comforting aspects of those texts and simply ignore or explain away the rest as antiquated notions of a world view long past. This is sensible and the main reason why the overwhelming majority of the religious people in the world are not behaving like ISIS or the Westboro Baptist church. Cherry pickers do not take their Bibles and Qurans literally and so allow for, or even encourage, the interpretation of these texts. This lets them hold on to the beauty in those books. They do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Thomas Jefferson literally used a razor to excise the parts of the Bible he found objectionable, including the passages that offended his intellectual sensibilities by requiring one to engage in magical thinking; and he was left with a love-based, tolerant tome (okay, I’ll spot you that he nonetheless kept slaves). Why are cherry-pickers comfortable identifying with religions whose founding texts include heinous behaviors? I don’t think there is one answer to that question but clearly they believe the positive aspects of their books outweigh the negative and so they cherry pick. Besides which, our civic laws only govern our behavior, not our thoughts, so there is no requirement that we be motivated to behave lawfully by any particular set of beliefs. You don’t have to be a believer in the biblical story of the origins of the 10 Commandments in order to agree not to steal, murder and so on. Adherence to the law is good enough.
Back to Indiana and its florists and cake bakers who have a more fundamentalist view of their faith. How radical are they? In comparison to ISIS or the WBC, they are pretty tame. However, there is a lawyer in Orange County who is currently trying to use California’s Proposition system to put a measure on the ballot which would, theoretically, legalize the widespread execution of gay people; so, lest we get too comfortable, we should not turn our backs on the danger potential of the radically and hatefully intolerant among us.
So, the florists and cake bakers are not really that radical – which means you can count them as also being cherry pickers, albeit choosing different cherries than their more tolerant, fellow Christians. But again, I’m trying to understand their point of view. Perhaps their issue really is a crisis of conscience. Another lawyer, Jordan Lorence, writes that the issue at hand is not specifically religious, saying that no religious texts explicitly instruct denial of services to gays. (In all fairness, when the book says you can kill people for being homosexual, the issue of whether or not to serve them at the public market may not have seemed necessary, but let’s not quibble. Hear him out.) The issue for us today, he says, is whether what is offered to the public is a standard product versus an expressive act. For example, a check-out person at the grocery could not decline to complete the sale of groceries for what appears to be a gay couple. A car salesman, then, should not be able (and lawfully, is not able) to refuse to sell a car to a gay couple.
However, he says, cake decorators, florists and photographers are using their artistically expressive skills in their jobs – which gives them some latitude as to what they must create to make their living. Yes, it is definitely discriminatory to say one will not photograph a gay wedding or put two men or two women on the top tier of a wedding cake. Moreover, it seems generally unkind to make an issue of such a request. From the artist’s perspective, however, it may be unkind or unfair to insist that they participate in an event they either deplore or which goes against the particular cherry they have hand-picked from the Bible.
Now, that said, would you be outraged at a baker who refuses to make a sexually explicit cake? Would you support a law which forces a Jewish bakery to make regular ‘rising’ cakes during Passover week for their non-observant or non-Jewish patrons? Would you force a kosher deli to put pork on the menu because some patrons prefer a BLT to a corned beef sandwich? I doubt it. We make some allowances for people’s religious beliefs and such situations have not produced law suits, at least so far. But everyone knows that you don’t go to a kosher deli when you’re in the mood for a BLT. That’s common sense, right?
Does the comparison seem unfair to you? Declining to serve pork in a Jewish deli seems to pale in comparison to refusing to contribute to the joy inherent in any wedding. Okay, let’s ramp up the examples, a bit: How about legally forcing a tattoo artist to render a racially hateful piece of art into a tattoo? Would that be okay with you or would you support his or her decision to decline to serve that customer? I can already imagine the “Yeah, buts…”
This whole Religious Freedom Act thing is, I believe, a two-fold issue: First, it is a moral issue, with hard-to-legislate nuances, of how we treat one another’s individual differences, no matter what we believe. Again, you can legislate tolerance but not kindness nor common sense. Common sense says you can’t force a Jewish Deli to serve pork; you would be effectively running it out of business. A bakery then could, I suppose, state a preference for not making cakes for gay weddings and then let the marketplace respond to this – which would affect the bakery’s business in a positive or negative way, given the surrounding social and business environment. It is not a position of kindness, to be sure.
Outright discrimination, however, (i.e. an outright refusal to serve) won’t legally fly for the second reason: Businesses rely on a publically funded infrastructure to survive. They all use the same communication and transportation systems. When there is a fire, the fire department shows up and does its dangerous job. When there is a situation calling for the police to intervene, they show up, as well, not asking any questions as to who they are serving and protecting or what those people believe; they put their lives on the line to protect that business, its employees, customers and assets. These officers may of any religion or sexual orientation but they cannot choose whether or not to douse the flames or capture the burglar at the bakery whose owners do not like to make (or would refuse to make) wedding cakes for gay couples. So, it’s a done deal. You can’t outright discriminate by refusing to serve others but you can make your preferences known, however inclusive or exclusive, and then deal with the consequences.
Personally, I vote for placing the bar at the level of kindness and tolerance.
David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.