There Are Limits to Religious Freedom
Currently in the city of
Frankfort, where I serve as a pastor, a
fairness law is being considered by our City Commission that would prohibit discrimination against the LGBT community. The ordinance, if passed, will be an
amendment of the city’s fair housing laws, adding new sections banning
discrimination in the categories of public accommodations and employment. It
also adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of classes
already protected under state and federal law.
The primary opposition to the fairness ordinance is coming from conservative Christians. Hershael York, Pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in
, recently wrote
an op-ed that appeared in the Frankfort State Journal signed by fourteen other
local clergy. The op-ed was titled, Fairness
Ordinance hurts people of faith. Frankfort
The basic thesis of the op-ed, which has been the incessant cry from the conservative Christian community, is that a fairness ordinance reversely discriminates against people of faith. Rev. York raises the question: “If a landlord believes that she would be acting contrary to scripture by renting to a heterosexual couple who live together without being married, shouldn’t she have the right to refuse them regardless of how many units she owns or where they are?” He closes his piece by saying: “No city ordinance should put any of our members in the position of tacitly approving or enabling what we sincerely believe to be contrary to God’s will. It’s just not fair.”
The question posed by
is like asking: If a restaurant owner wants to have separate restrooms for
blacks and whites because he believes that such is necessary to preserve the
natural order created by God, shouldn’t he have the right to? The obvious
answer to both questions is a resounding no. York
Are people of faith being treated unfairly because fairness laws prohibit them from discriminating based on their religious values? This same argument was made by religious people against desegregation and, prior to that, abolition.
The practice of my religious freedom ends when it infringes upon the rights of others and discriminates against them—at least in public life. Religious communities are still free to discriminate up to a point. For example, many churches still do not allow women pastors, elders, or deacons. The freedom to discriminate against women within religious communities is protected by our Constitution. Outside religious institutions it’s a different playing field.
Rev. York makes reference to Sunrise Children’s Services, an agency of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, who got into trouble with the state for dismissing a worker on the basis of her sexual orientation. His point is that promises of exemption for religious institutions are not reassuring. But the reason Sunrise Children’s Service is in a court battle is simple: When you take Caesar’s money you are obligated to play by Caesar’s rules. When a religious institution accepts state money then, it can be argued, it should have to conform to the antidiscrimination laws that govern state institutions.
If a landlord cannot in good conscience rent to unmarried heterosexual or same-sex couples for no other reason than on moral grounds, then that landlord needs to get out of the renting business. Should a business owner be allowed to discriminate against people who fail to conform to their religious values? Of course not. That’s why we need fairness laws. Healthy religion, by the way, respects these boundaries and pursues the common good.