Cases have been popping up across the country where individuals have declined to bake cakes or take photos for same-sex wedding ceremonies—and government has punished them. This week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a bill that would have put religious liberty protections in place in her state. We sat down with Ryan Anderson, Heritage’s William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society, to get some answers about this debate.
The Foundry: How did people’s beliefs about same-sex marriage become an issue for private businesses?
Ryan Anderson: In New Mexico, a photographer declined to use her artistic talents to promote a same-sex ceremony because of her religious beliefs. The couple complained and the New Mexico Human Rights Commission ordered her to pay a fine of nearly $7,000. Christian adoption and foster-care agencies in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Washington, D.C., have been forced to stop providing those services because they believe that the best place for kids is with a married mom and dad. Other cases include a baker, a florist, a bed-and-breakfast, a student counselor, the Salvation Army, and more.
Whose liberty is at stake? Is it just business owners’?
Everyone’s. When the government starts forcing people to do things that violate their deeply held beliefs, we have a problem. Unless the government proves that there is a compelling government interest in doing so (and that there was not another, less restrictive means possible), citizens should be left free. We need legislation protecting religious liberty for all, because in a growing number of cases, government coercion and penalties have violated religious freedom.
Why is this a religious liberty issue?
Many religions teach that marriage is the union of a man and woman, and the religious liberty concern in these recent cases is that people are being coerced into violating that belief. While Americans are legally free to live and love as they choose, no one should demand that government coerce others into participating in activities that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.
But isn’t government supposed to guarantee equal treatment for all?
These are cases of private individuals offering (or not offering) their services, not government officially recognizing same-sex relationships—which is another case altogether. There is no need for government to try to force every photographer and every florist to service every marriage-related event.
Would laws like these open the door to lots of businesses discriminating against gays and lesbians?
Claims that proposals like Arizona’s encourage refusing service to gays and lesbians are simply nonsensical. Arizona’s proposed legislation never even mentioned same-sex couples or sexuality; it simply clarified and improved existing state protections for religious liberty.
Some people have claimed, for example, that it meant a pharmacy could refuse to serve gays and lesbians. But I know of no sincere religious belief that would lead a pharmacist to refuse to dispense antibiotics to gay or lesbian patients. Furthermore, it has long been recognized that the government has a “compelling interest” in protecting public health by combating communicable diseases. Consequently, prohibiting pharmacies from denying appropriately prescribed antibiotics to any patient might very well be the least restrictive means possible of ensuring access to necessary medicines.
What about people whose religions say different things, or Americans who choose not to practice a religion?
These types of freedom protections are important for all Americans. As Cato’s Ilya Shapiro put it, “For that matter, gay photographers and bakers shouldn’t be forced to work religious celebrations…and environmentalists shouldn’t be forced to work job fairs in logging communities.” When it comes to this particular issue, all Americans should remain free to believe and act in the public square based on their beliefs about marriage without fear of government penalty.
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This post has been modified.