(RNS) “We’d like you to make a cake for our divorce party,” Cindy says. She and Bob have been married for seven years, but they’ve grown apart in recent months. They separated six months ago, and now they want to part ways in the most amicable way possible. (In case you’re wondering what a divorce party is, it is a growing phenomenon of celebrating the close of a relationship, much like a wedding celebrates the consummation.) Bob and Cindy want a special cake for the event.
Unfortunately, their wedding vendor is a devoted Catholic who believes marriage is a sacrament, divorce a grave sin, and a party celebrating a divorce a kind of blasphemy. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m the right person to help with this event.”
“Oh, we’re religious too!” Cindy says. “We believe Jesus would rather us separate with a smile than soldier on in frustration.”
“I recognize your right to a divorce,” the wedding vendor says. “But I disagree with your take on what Jesus thinks about it. I still don’t think I’m the right person for this job. I don’t know how to decorate a divorce. I don’t know how to make blasphemy beautiful.”
What happens next? Switch the scenario from a “divorce party” to a “same-sex wedding,” and the vendor may be sued for discrimination or face heavy fines until she is forced to comply.
Wedding vendors, florists and photographers who object to same-sex marriage are at the front lines in what has become a battle between “religious freedom” and “gay rights.”
Those who support the vendors believe that religious people should be exempted from serving same-sex wedding ceremonies if their convictions are sincere; otherwise, we trample on the religious rights guaranteed in the First Amendment by forcing conscientious people of faith to be complicit in something they believe to be morally wrong.
Those who object worry that such exemptions will lead to widespread refusal of service to gays and lesbians, reminiscent of the segregation era. We might as well write “We don’t serve gays” on the window, effectively making our LGBT neighbors second-class citizens.
I don’t want to see either of these scenarios become reality, and I don’t think most of the country does either.
On the one hand, I don’t believe that the vast majority of religious people in this country harbor hatred and animosity toward their gay and lesbian neighbors. Most religious people are not looking for a sinister method of discriminating against gays and lesbians or trying to find excuses to deny them service. When you pay attention to the wedding vendors and photographers at the center of recent controversies, it is clear they are not opposed to serving (or even employing) gay clients. The heart of the problem, for the religious objector, is not the identity of the customer, but the nature of the event.
Throughout history, Christians, Jews and Muslims have taught that complementarity (or opposite sex, male and female) is essential to the nature of marriage; to alter this definition is to facilitate a lie. The issue is the nature of the event, not the sexual orientation of the client. If we were to see signs go up all over town saying, “Gays not served here,” I believe most religious people — including those who oppose gay marriage — would stand up and say, “This is unacceptable, and it is an affront to human dignity.”
On the other hand, I don’t believe everyone in the LGBT community wants to trample over the consciences of people whose deeply held religious convictions prohibit their involvement with same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Yes, there are activists who are illiberal, coercive and dismissive of any kind of objection to their agenda, but the LGBT folks I know are respectful of people who are respectful of them — even if they disagree on the nature and meaning of marriage. Just as we wouldn’t support laws that force a Muslim to print magazines portraying Muhammad, or a businesswoman who opposes abortion to make signs for a Planned Parenthood fundraiser, I don’t believe that all gays and lesbians want to see people of faith jailed or fined for declining to participate in a same-sex wedding.
Treating the LGBT rights/religious freedom conversation as a zero-sum game where one can only “win” at the expense of the other is actually a “no-win” for all of us. We’re Americans. We’re better than this.
We need to avoid the polarizing partisanship of these debates and work to ensure that LGBT persons are treated with dignity and that the consciences of religious people are respected.
(Trevin Wax is managing editor of the Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)
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