Does Religious Freedom Justify Discrimination?
The scene is a bakery in a small town in Indiana. Ralph and Sally, a married couple, run the Straight Bakery with the aid of the pretty young Ruth. Dr. Janet and her fiancé Andrea enter the shop, looking to buy a cake.
Sally greets them with a pleasant smile, which quickly fades when she finds out that Janet and Andrea are a lesbian couple. Pointing at the door, she says “baking you a wedding cake would violate my religious beliefs. Go find Satan’s baker! Leave now!” The couple leave the shop, planning to drive to the next town—their small town has but one bakery.
At the end of the day, Sally leaves the shop. Ralph says he will help Ruth close up the shop. After Sally leaves, Ralph and Ruth indulge in some adultery.
Indiana has recently gotten nation attention for its version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill would prevent state and local governments in Indiana from “substantially burdening” the exercise of religion unless it can be proven the state has a compelling interest and is using the least restrictive means for acting on that interest.
Proponents of the bill claim that it is aimed to protect people, such as business owners, with strong religious beliefs from the intrusion of the state. Those who oppose the bill note that it would legalize discrimination and that it is aimed at gays and lesbians. Many other states have similar laws, but some of them have laws that protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Since the law cannot specify individual religions for protection, it is likely to lead to some interesting consequences, possibly involving Satanism—as happened in my adopted state of Florida. While the legal aspects of this matter are rather important, as a philosopher my main concern is with the ethics of the matter.
On the face of it, religious freedom seems to be good—after all, it would seem to fall under the broader liberty of thought and belief (which is ably supported by Mill in his work on liberty). As such, the bill initially seems to be a morally reasonable defense of a well-established right.
The bill, as opponents argue, would certainly seem to allow people to discriminate against others, provided that they can justify their discrimination on religious grounds. The law cannot, obviously, require that a religion be true, rational, consistent, sensible or even sane—all religions are equally protected. This, of course, could lead to some serious consequences.
Driving home, Sally’s car is struck by a delivery van and she is badly injured. Luckily, Dr. Janet and Andrea (a trained nurse) are right behind the van. As Dr. Janet and Andrea rush to help, they see it is Sally. Dr. Janet, a devout member of the Lesbian Church, has sworn to God that she will not treat any straight bigots. Looking down at the dying Sally, Dr. Janet says “saving you would violate my sincerely held religious beliefs. Sorry. Perhaps you can find another doctor.” Sally dies.
The obvious counter to this sort of scenario is that religious freedom does not grant a person the liberty to deny a person an essential service, such as medical treatment. Using the standard principle of harm as a limit on liberty, the freedom of religion ends when it would cause unwarranted harm to another person. It could also be argued that the moral obligation to others would override the religious freedom of a person, compelling her to act even against her religious beliefs. If so, it would be wrong of Dr. Janet and Andrea to let Sally die. This, of course, rests on either the assumption that harm overrides liberty or the assumption that obligations override liberty. There are well-established and reasonable arguments against both of these assumptions. That said, it would certainly seem that the state would have a compelling interest in not allowing doctors, pharmacists, and others to allow people to die or suffer harm because of their religious beliefs. But, perhaps, religious freedom trumps all these considerations.
After having a good time with Ruth, Ralph showers off the evidence of his sins and then heads for home. Ruth helps herself to some of the money from the register and adjusts the spreadsheet on the business PC to cover up her theft.
Ralph is horrified to learn that Sally has been killed. He takes her to the only funeral home in town, run by the Marsh family (who moved there from Innsmouth). Unfortunately for Ralph, the Marsh family members are devoted worshippers of Dagon and their religious beliefs forbid them from providing their services to Christians. After being ejected from the property, Ralph tries to drive Sally’s body to the next town, but his truck breaks down.
He finds that the nearest shop is Mohamed’s Motors, a Muslim owned business. Bob, the tow truck driver, says that while he is generally fine with Christians, he is unwilling to tow a Christian’s truck. He does recommend his friend Charlie, a Jewish tow truck driver who is willing to tow Christians, provided that it is not on the Sabbath and the Christian is not a bigot. Ralph cries out to God at the injustices he has suffered, forgetting that he has reaped what he has sown.
In the case of these sorts of important, but not essential, services it could be argued that people would have the right to discriminate. After all, while the person would be inconvenienced (perhaps extremely so), the harm would not be large enough to make the refusal morally wrong. That is, while it would be nice of Bob to tow Ralph’s truck, it would not be wrong for him to refuse and he is under no obligation to do so. It might, of course, be a bad business decision—but that is another matter entirely.
If appeals to harm and obligations fail, then another option is to argue from the social contract. The idea is that people who have businesses or provide services do not exist in a social vacuum: they operate within society. In return for the various goods of society (police protection, protection of the laws, social rights and so on) they are required to render their services and provide their goods to all the members of the civil society without discrimination. This does not require that they like their customers or approve of them. Rather, it requires that they honor the tactic contract: in return for the goods of society that allow one to operate a business, one must provide goods and services to all members of the society. That is the deal one makes when one operates a business in a democratic society that professes liberty and justice for all.
Obviously, people do have the right to refuse goods and services under certain conditions. For example, if a customer went into Ralph & Ruth’s Bakery (Ralph moved on quickly) and insulted Ruth, urinated on the floor and demanded they give him a half price discount, Ruth would be justified in refusing to make him a cake. After all, his behavior would warrant such treatment. However, refusing a well-behaved customer because she is gay, black, Christian, or a woman would not be justified. This is because those qualities are not morally relevant to refusing services. Most importantly, freedom of religion is not a freedom to discriminate.
It might be countered that the government has no right to force a Christian to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. This is true, in that the person can elect to close his business rather than bake the cake. However, he does not have the moral right to operate a business within civil society if he is going to unjustly discriminate against members of that society. So, in that sense, the state does have the right to force a Christian to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, just as it can force him to bake a cake for a mixed-race couple, a Jewish couple, or an atheist couple.