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A forgotten distinction

| Sunday, September 20, 2015

By now, we’ve all heard of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was jailed for denying marriage licenses to gay couples. As a devout Christian, Davis’ conscience could not permit her to personally follow the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage. Feeling a moral obligation to uphold what she believes to be God’s will, Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Her position resulted in a five-day jail sentence. Those reacting to her expression of personal faith have threatened to take her life. Unfortunately, Davis’ experience is but a chapter in a larger story.

Similarly, in 2013, an Oregon-based, Christian, family-owned bakery, Sweet Cakes by Melissa, was fined $135,000 for refusing on religious grounds to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. The response by secularists was nothing short of outrageous with picketing and boycotts necessitating the closure of the bakery.

The millennium has ushered in what presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has titled the “criminalization of Christianity.” A number of organizations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, have launched organized attacks on Christians and their beliefs. These organizations challenge laws designed to protect religious liberties and destroy private businesses which would dare express and adhere to Christian beliefs. Those opposed to the Christian faith have unfortunately used the notion of separation of church and state to persecute organized religions, or at least religions with which they do not agree.

Those against organized faiths have long aired their complaints before American courts. As a consequence, the Supreme Court has developed an extensive jurisprudence relating to the practice of religion in public spaces. For example, in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Court held that prayer in a public school is unconstitutional on the grounds that it constituted government-sponsored promotion of a specific faith. Similarly, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania v. ACLU, the Court ruled that a Nativity scene could not be displayed in a Pittsburgh courthouse.

The battleground has now moved to Christian-oriented companies. Attacks on companies such as Chick-Fil-A are nothing short of outrageous. Equally offensive is the fact that politicians have shamelessly sought political gain from this conduct. For example, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to block the opening of Chick-Fil-A restaurants based upon his pontification that “Chick-Fil-A values are not Chicago values” are wholly inconsistent with basic notions of an individual or organization’s right to follow religious beliefs.

The noise created by those opposed to expressions of Christian faith has led many to forget that, as a matter of federal law, businesses generally have the right to deny service if providing that service would violate one’s religious beliefs. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 is a federal law passed with broad bi-partisan support (unanimous in the House and 97 to 3 in the Senate), which “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.” The Act was relied upon by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Hobby Lobby decision. In Hobby Lobby, the Court held that Christian-owned Hobby Lobby was not required to offer contraception to its employees on account of the owner’s religious beliefs.

Twenty-one states have passed their own forms of religious freedom legislation; 16 states introduced such legislation in 2015 alone. Indiana enacted its own religious freedom law in April 2015. The intent of such legislation is to protect the rights of individuals and businesses to pursue religious freedom without being unfairly accused of discriminatory conduct.

It’s time for the majority to stop being silent. If you find the beliefs of the owners of companies such as Chick-Fil-A to be inconsistent with yours, don’t visit the restaurant. Chick-Fil-A and other organizations, which have chosen to stand by their Christian values, are not engaging in discriminatory conduct. No one is being barred from these places of business. The demands of a very small segment of our communities who insist that we adhere to their beliefs must come to an end.

Davis of Rowan County has the right to express her religious beliefs. While she doesn’t have the right to obstruct the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision, her employer does have an obligation to accommodate her religious views. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long taken the position that unless it is unreasonable to do so, an employer needs to provide religious accommodations to its employees. Ms. Davis made clear in her public statement that “I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our founders envisioned — that conscience and religious freedom would be protected.” Many have forgotten the distinction between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Those who wish to do so must be given the freedom to practice whatever religion and belief system they choose to follow.

Jordan Ryan, sophomore resident of Lyons Hall, studies political science and peace studies along with minors in Constitutional studies and business economics. She can be reached at jryan15@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Jordan Ryan

Jordan Ryan, sophomore resident of Lyons Hall, studies Political Science and Peace Studies along with minors in Constitutional Studies and Business Economics. She can be reached at jryan15@nd.edu

Contact Jordan
  • Brendan

    Thanks for writing this. Most people at Notre Dame conflate these faith-based objections with racial discrimination from the civil rights era. As long as Sweet Cakes by Melissa is willing to do business with gay customers, I support their right not to participate in a gay wedding.

  • what no really


  • tldr


  • Tom Z.

    This is spot on. Nice job.

  • Brendan

    If by “offer to engage in commerce” you mean opening a business, I don’t agree that Christians forfeit their rights when they open a business. I cannot tell if you refuse to see a difference between denying services to LGBT people and facilitating a gay wedding or if you believe that this case is an example of the first.

    I support them because I don’t believe Christian bakers, florists, priests, pastors, or justices of the peace should be forced to violate their beliefs or give up their livelihood. That said, I regret that they appear to have responded to fire with fire if they really did publish the contact information of the couple after they sued.

    • Hi Brendan,

      Thanks for your *very* thoughtful and measured response. Sincerely. 🙂

      My point is to point out that there is an existing law on the books that describes what is “okay” or “not okay” to that established law. How someone freely chooses to react to the law is secondary, if not tertiary. Example 1: “We will not eat pizza. That’s law. If you do, you will stand on your head in the corner of this room for a day.” Now, as we all know, not eating pizza is…INCOMPREHENSIBLE! Yet, if you eat pizza, that contravenes the previously agreed upon and followed rule.

      Brendan, I REALLY appreciate your comment, but when it comes down to “personal belief”, the “law” doesn’t really take that into account. What “law” does, in this context, is define a playing field that is, ironically, as open as possible. Then, and only THEN, the more restrictions that are placed on that field of action is defined by practice, time, and history. In other words, by “people”. Us. Who, as we all know, are…flawed.

      To be honest, Brendan, I really, truly wish we could push these issues to the side. There are MANY MORE issues we should be focusing on. When I get at my most cynical, I think these issues are thrown on the table to distract, to make us focus on “this” when we REALLY should be focusing on “that”. And the “that” is IT.

      Again, Thanks Brendan. *i’m blushing* I like your heart. You seem like a decent person. Be Well.

      • Brendan

        I think we will have to agree to disagree on some of these points. I have some hope that cases like Hobby Lobby and the language of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will protect Christian business owners. If Christians ultimately lose these legal battles (and that is very possible), they may have to remember some very radical, but very necessary words of MLK.

        Thanks for your thoughts. You seem to have researched this issue extensively.

        • You are a wonderful man, Brendan. I respect you a lot. Peace.

          • Brendan

            Same to you. Have a great fall break!