Is it All About Hate?: Understanding Proponents of the Arizona “Discrimination” Law
There’s been a lot of controversy about “gay discrimination laws” lately, namely about a failed bill in Kansas and a bill that’s currently making it’s way through the Arizona government. These bills essentially ensure that business owners will not be sued if they refuse service to someone because they are gay. Naturally almost all of the media attention is negative, with articles about bigotry and discrimination, as well as comments that we might be seeing “No Gays Need Apply” signs showing up in businesses around the country. Personally I don’t necessarily support such laws. However I do think there is a good reason that they’re being proposed, a reason that is mostly being ignored because of the shock value of a bill that appears to support discrimination.
I think the main reason why these bills are contentious are a matter of framing. Just about anything can be made to sound good or bad based on how you frame it. The framing these bills have mostly received is along the following lines: “This bill will allow small businesses to refuse service to people simply because they are gay.” Or even “These bills make it legal to discriminate against gays.” These are powerfully negative framings. Who would want to support a bill like that? On the other hand, the bills can be framed another way. “These bills ensure that an individual cannot be forced to do work that violates their religious beliefs. “ This framing puts it in a completely different light. After all, we don’t want to force people to violate their religious beliefs. That would be going against the first amendment. The funny thing is that all three of those framing are technically accurate. I just think it’s important to take them all into account when trying to find your own stance on this contentious issue.
On the one hand these bills do seem to be legalizing discrimination based on sexuality, which is obviously bad. I completely understand why people are upset about this, and I think they have a right to be. On the other hand we need to recognize why the bill is being proposed in the first place: to protect religious rights. Separation of church and state is a road that goes both ways. The government is not allowed to force a person to violate their religious beliefs. That’s what “separation of church and state” is all about. The phrase comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to churchgoers who were concerned that the new government was going to prevent them from practicing their religion, or force them to convert to another faith. Thomas Jefferson assured them that the first amendment built “a wall of separation between Church & State” and that the government would not interfere with their beliefs. In the case of these bills, the concern is that the government will force business owners to perform work that they have religious objections to.
So, again, the controversy about this law is a matter of framing. If the question is “Should the government legalize discrimination?” the answer is obviously “No!” But if the question is “Should the government force people to violate their religious beliefs?” the answer is also obviously “No!” The concern of the proponents of these bills is that under the current system people can, and have, been sued for refusing to serve gay individuals based on religious obligations (photographers declining to photograph a gay wedding, bakers declining to bake cakes for a gay wedding, etc.). This appears to be an example of the government punishing individuals for following their religious conscience.
Now I personally do not think it is morally wrong for a Christian baker to bake a cake for a gay wedding, or at least not any more “wrong” than it is for a baker to bake a cake for a person’s third wedding after two messy divorces. However some people do have moral objections against that kind of work, and even if I disagree I support their right to follow their religious beliefs. On the other hand, I don’t think a bill like this is the way to do it. I believe that the ideal solution is for the courts to handle this. If someone is sued because they refused to violate their religious beliefs then the courts should (ideally, remember) recognize that their first amendment rights are being violated. That’s the whole purpose of the judicial branch of government: to identify when laws violate a citizen’s constitutional rights. Passing a bill seems more likely to simply cause controversy (as we’ve already seen) instead of understanding as to why supporters of religious rights are concerned. If our current laws violate the first amendment then it is the job of the courts to overturn them. On the other hand, I can understand that everything is not ideal and our judicial system is far from perfect. I can see why some people would rather pass a law then put their faith in the judiciary.
So, whether you’re for or against these bills, try to understand the other side’s perspective. This isn’t about bigots and persecutors fighting each other, but rather about two different ideas that are both good but sometimes have trouble working together: individual rights (religious liberty) and civil tolerence (human dignity). And always remember, whatever the controversy is, that moral, rational, and educated individuals can disagree on important issues. Try not to demonize anyone out there.