The problem highlighted by the recent veto by Gov. Jan Brewer of an Arizona bill that would have allowed business owners to deny service to customers based on the owners’ religious beliefs will not go away anytime soon, because the issue strikes at the heart of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, among the bedrock principles that define American exceptionalism.
The intervention of corporate America from every sector, backed by the intimidation of the gay rights lobby and the related media attention, was brutal and ultimately no doubt decisive in Brewer’s decision, serving to demonstrate once again that economic interests and demagoguery too often prevail over matters of principle. But in this case, we need to be very careful not to jump to conclusions about the nature of the issue.
We seem to want to continually conflate the GLBT movement with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They are not the same. There is no analogy here to the Jim Crow South or the civil rights of blacks which were in many cases specifically excluded by state laws. And this issue is not the same as the public accommodation clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964–can you imagine a restaurant owner asking a patron about his or her sexual orientation prior to admittance or service? A Christian baker in Colorado faces charges for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Are you kidding? This is not analogous to racial discrimination; it’s about whether or not a business can exercise the right to religious liberty in deciding not to provide services or products to events connected to same-sex marriages or “commitment ceremonies”.
The constitutional rights to religious liberty and freedom of conscience, which are absolutely critical to the genius of the no establishment and free exercise clause of First Amendment, are at stake here. And, while being committed to the human and civil rights of all citizens, we must preserve these basic foundations, and not just for religious institutions, but for businesses and individuals as well.
Corporate America is out of line here and should be part of the solution, not a force for special interest pressure tactics borne out of cowardice in the face of intimidation. This is a difficult issue not easily resolved and will no doubt require considerable work by Congress, because there are more Arizona-type bills in the pipeline.