For the last two centuries, Americans have been committed to the idea that governments should not force citizens to violate their religious convictions unless they have a compelling reason to do so. Alas, this consensus may be unraveling.
Consider the case of Barronelle Stuzman. A grandmother from Richland, Washington, Mrs. Stutzman has worked as a florist for most of her professional life. For more than nine years, she willingly served Robert Ingersoll and his same sex-partner. On multiple occasions, she created floral arrangements to help them celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, and the like.
But in 2012, an employee told her that Mr. Ingersoll was going to ask her to provide flowers for his wedding ceremony. She talked it over with her husband and concluded:
My faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman. Marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman, as Christ is to the church. To create and design something from my heart that helps celebrate their marriage would be dishonoring to God, and my convictions.
Mr. Ingersoll came to her store with his request, she gently told him “no,” gave him a hug, and referred him to a store that had no such objections.
The State Attorney General and the ACLU responded with ruinous lawsuits that may drive her out of business. Washington’s Supreme Court will hear her case this year.
Many Americans do not share Mrs. Stutzman’s views about same-sex marriage, and even those who do may question her refusal to participate in the wedding ceremony. That her views are unpopular is no surprise, as religious liberty cases often involve minority opinions. Most Americans do not have religious objections to serving in the military, saluting the flag, or attending public schools.
But just because a conviction is held by only few citizens does not mean it shouldn’t be respected.
Historically, American states and the national government have protected religious citizens from generally applicable laws by crafting narrow exemptions to accommodate their convictions. In virtually every instance, these exemptions protect religious liberty without harming the common good.
Opponents of religious accommodations often contend that they are detrimental to public welfare. They attempt to persuade others that this is the case by dreaming up hypothetical scenarios, suggesting that religious exemptions would lead to grocery stores refusing to sell food to homosexuals, restaurants declining to serve African-Americans, hospitals turning away unwed mothers, and the like.
These sorts of parade of horribles are rhetorically effective, but they are largely disconnected from reality. Over the past decade there have only been a handful of cases similar to Stutzman’s, and in each of these instances, there were literally dozens of vendors located only minutes away who were willing to provide the desired product or service.
Even so, we should recognize that crafting a religious accommodation to protect citizens such as Barronelle Stutzman would lead to some harm. Would-be customers unaware of her convictions might be inconvenienced, and some—perhaps many—of her fellow citizens might be offended by her refusal to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies.
While real, these harms are, in the scheme of things, relatively innocuous.
Religious accommodations in policy areas such as national defense, education, and healthcare have the potential to create greater harm. For instance, if religious pacifists are excused from military service in time of war, the country’s ability to defend itself may be imperiled.
Over the next few weeks, I will explore a range of real, not hypothetical, religious accommodations that have been made by legislatures or required by courts. Almost without exception, consideration of these accommodations and their impact demonstrate that it is possible to protect religious liberty while not detracting from the common good.
Mark David Hall is Herbert Hoover Professor of Politics and Faculty Fellow in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. Parts of this series were originally published by the Heritage Foundation as “Religious Accommodations and the Common Good,” available here.