Why can’t we accommodate florists denying services to gay couples?

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Bouquet in an Arched Window, Ambrosius Bosschaert, circa 1618-1620.

I have some sympathy for Baronelle Stutzman, the Southern Baptist florist who lost her case in Washington State Supreme Court last month. Stutzman was sued for refusing to provide a gay couple who’d been her customers for years with floral arrangements for their marriage.

The court decided that such an exercise of her religious liberty was trumped by the Washington Law Against Discrimination — “a neutral, generally applicable law that serves our state government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations.”

I don’t doubt for a minute that Stutzman sincerely believes that making bouquets for the nuptials of Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed was against her religion. I don’t doubt as well that, so far as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are concerned, that belief is fully justified.

Sure, nearly two-thirds of Americans think small private businesses should not be permitted to withhold service from gays and lesbians on religious grounds, according to a new PRRI survey. But over half of white evangelicals think otherwise.

Can’t we find a way to accommodate them?

Some well-intentioned, pro-same-sex marriage people think so. One of them is Jacob Lupfer, who wrote a column over at Patheos asking that Stutzman not be financially ruined for taking her stand.

Much of the on-line pushback he got equated her behavior to racism; as in: “If you support this disgusting anti-gay bigot, then you must also be okay with a business declining to serve an interracial wedding.”

To which Lupfer responded in another column:

Believing that marriage is a man and a woman is not the same as believing that certain races are inferior or that people from different racial backgrounds cannot form a marriage. As a matter of religious objection, there is no legitimate way to argue from Christianity that marriage cannot exist between people of different races.

The problem is that, as a matter of legal objection, that’s neither here nor there.

Courts in America aren’t allowed to determine the legitimacy of a particular religious belief — i.e. whether a Christian is entitled to believe that interracial marriage is contrary to God’s will. All they can decide is whether the belief is sincerely held.

Once upon a time, there were lots of Americans who sincerely believed that miscegenation was against their religion, and I expect there are still a few who do. Some of them may even be florists (or bakers or photographers or invitation designers) who object to providing services to interracial couples on their way to the altar.

So here’s the issue.

If you think small business owners should be allowed to discriminate against any customer on the basis of any sincerely held religious belief, then fine. Be it same-sex marriage or interracial marriage or interfaith marriage or whatever marriage, the objecting service provider gets to have her way.

But if you want to forbid florists from refusing service to mixed-race couples but allow Baronelle Stutzman et al. to refuse service to a same-sex couples, you have to come up with some persuasive secular reason for considering discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation less deserving of legal protection than discrimination on the basis of race.

I can’t.