Much Ado About Nothing – Is Religious Freedom Really Threatened by Anti-Discrimination Laws?

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Craig Wiesner and Derrick Kikuchi are co-founders of Reach And Teach and manage Tikkun/NSP web operations.

As we waited to check our luggage and get our boarding passes at the Charlotte NC airport we watched as couple after couple got to the counter, handed over their tickets, chatted with the agent, and then went on their way to their gates.
All seemed normal.
Then, when we stepped up to the counter, the agent looked at me and said “You, get back in line!” Pointing at my travel mate, and husband, I responded “We’re together.” She very loudly said “No. You have to come up here separately.” I responded quietly “You’ve had couple after couple come up here and check their bags and get their boarding passes.” She boomed out “You ARE NOT a couple.” “Yes, we are.” “Not in my line you’re not.” She then asked me if I wanted to travel at all that day, because if I didn’t get back in line she would make sure I didn’t fly anywhere that day.
This was around 20 years ago. Humiliated and near tears, I quietly stepped away from the counter while my husband checked his bag.
A few months before that airport encounter Derrick had been elected to represent the San Jose Presbytery at the PCUSA’s General Assembly which would take place in Charlotte. Some in the Presbytery (the governing body of a group of churches within a geographic area) became outraged that someone they suspected was homosexual had been elected to that position. A campaign of harassing phone calls and letters followed. It got to the point where we were afraid to answer the phone or open our mail box. Despite vaguely worded threats that he and our congregation would pay dearly if he did not step down, Derrick refused and represented our Presbytery for a week at that national gathering where, among many things, whether the church should be welcoming of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, was being hotly debated.
After a week of being surrounded mostly by incredibly loving and supportive people, while listening to some who spouted harsh rhetoric against us, I was exhausted and really looking forward to returning home. The incident at the airport left me badly bruised. Way back then, I never would have imagined that by 2015 the PCUSA and the country would have changed so dramatically, and for that I’m very grateful.
But how much has really changed? Could that ticket agent still tell me that in her line, we are NOT a couple? Could someone refuse to serve us at all?
Since the recent debacle in Indiana, where the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that, according to the vast majority of legal analysts, would have allowed businesses to refuse to serve LGBTQQI people based on the business owner’s (or an employee’s or a corporation’s) “religious beliefs,” a national debate has been sparked over the concept of “religious freedom.” A few businesses have openly declared that they will not serve LTBTQQI people, with several businesses raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in “donations” from “supporters” who have rallied to their defense after “attacks” by “liberals.”
Let’s make it very clear, there have been no fire-bombings, no drive-by shootings, no physical altercations, and there has not even been any actual face-to-face personal interactions between those who support LGBTQQI inclusion and these business owners. Yes, there have been humorous and nasty Yelp reviews and other forms of online comments and, according to the business owners, floods of emails and phone calls, including ones that the owners say actually threatened violence.
For that, if real, I am sorry. I’ve been working on progressive issues for the last 30 years and none of the people working for a more peaceful, sustainable, and inclusive world, with whom I have worked side by side, have ever threatened anyone with violence.
That simply is not our thing.
Being outraged, speaking out about it, using humor, irony, sarcasm, pranks, street theater, boycotts, and every other nonviolent tool in the book, you betcha. And I have to add that in those 30 years the vast majority of people with whom I have worked have been people of faith, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, and others. To say that the fight for a more inclusive and just world is somehow a battle against people of faith is simply a lie.
The question at hand, right now is, should it legal for a pizza place, car repair shop, bakery, florist, shoe-repair shop, restaurant, motel, urgent care clinic, or any other type of business to hang a virtual or real sign on their door that says “We reserve the right to refuse service to people who live a lifestyle in opposition to our religious values?”
In some towns, cities, villages, parishes, counties, and entire states, the answer is “it depends.”
If the class of people the business owner, employee, or corporation wishes to refuse to serve happens to be in a “protected class,” the answer is no. If an interracial couple pulls into a repair shop on an interstate highway, the repairman can not refuse to fix their car, even if his religion firmly holds that such marriages are against God’s will. But, if a gay couple pulls into this guy’s garage in a town in Michigan, he may in fact be allowed to say “You’re GAY so NO WAY!”
Today, in much of the United States, sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected classes. So yes, Birthday Cupcakes R Us, you can refuse to sell cupcakes to your neighbor if you happen to think the guy might use the cupcakes to celebrate his transgender daughter’s birthday. But others in your community and around the world have the right to make it well known across the street and across the planet if you do refuse to sell those cupcakes, and if a lot of other folks choose to buy their cupcakes elsewhere from then on, too bad for you. Of course if a bunch of folks want to give you a few hundred thousand dollars for standing up against “liberal bullies,” that’s great for you too, I guess.
But I will say, for the record, I think Jesus would have given the guy cupcakes for his daughter’s birthday.
Just saying.
Actually, I think most people of any faith, or no faith at all, would live up to the nearly universal call to treat every single one of creation’s children with dignity and respect. If you make pizza for a living, make the best darned pizza you can and be thankful that people want to buy it.
And, dear woman at the ticket counter at the Charlotte airport who humiliated me in front of a few hundred people in line at that airport a few decades ago, and dear butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, I’ll be continuing to work along with countless others, many of them devout people of faith, to pass and uphold laws in every hamlet, city, state and at the federal level, to make sure that discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, citizenship, familial status, disability, veteran status, genetics AND gender identification and sexual orientation is illegal.