Politics & Policy

Answer Us This, George Stephanopoulos

Should the government compel expression? (And other questions the media fear to hear)

ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and MSNBC’s Ed Schultz will soon be in the dock (below, figuratively speaking), but first, let’s make this clear: The battle over various Religious Freedom Restoration Acts has nothing to do with a dislike of, or desire to discriminate against, homosexuals.

Let this also be clear: The organized Left and its media mouthpieces have won this week’s skirmishes, largely because the Right’s would-be champions proved to be invertebrate; but advocates of religious freedom have not lost the war, and cannot, must not, and will not retreat — and we have every chance of ultimately prevailing.

This is not about homosexuals. It’s about religious freedom. Those of us who repeatedly write about this issue are not concerned merely with bakers. We worry about the pharmacist at risk of being compelled to provide abortion-inducing drugs. (No homosexual issue there.) We worry about the non-denominational Christian school that might be told it cannot fire a teacher of religion classes who violates (non-sexual) church doctrine. About the Jewish Student Union group that could be compelled by college authorities to allow a Muslim to be selected to its board. About public high-school facilities available for rent on weekends to an atheist group but not to a Christian one.

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And we also worry about a host of real-life instances highlighted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Becket Fund, and others, such as the eighty-something couple whose faith-based signage was restricted to less than a fifth the size of political signs in their neighborhood, the fire chief fired for self-publishing a book about living as a Christian, the pastors subpoenaed for daring to speak out against a citywide ordinance opening all public restrooms to people of both genders, and the American Indian not allowed legal avenues to prevent the bulldozing of his tribe’s sacred grounds.

Moreover, many of us who would most vociferously defend the rights of those aggrieved in the examples above would no more discriminate against homosexuals, in our private lives, than we would cut off our own fingers or toes. If we were bakers, we may well even bake a cake for a same-sex ceremony, even as we trumpet the rights of others to refuse so to do.

As many have argued, some with great flair and cleverness, the current flap about wedding-service providers such as photographers and confectioners is decidedly not about refusing to serve the people, but about refusing the serve the ceremony. If a baker will make a cake for a homosexual’s birthday but not a homosexual wedding, that is rather strong evidence that he holds no antipathy to homosexuals as a class.

So, with that as introduction, let’s go to our guest experts. What follows is the TV host’s questions, asked rapid-fire, minus the almost-irrelevant answers from our guests.

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#related#HOST: Mr. Cuomo, answer me this: Are you really in favor of the government’s assessing hefty fines against a grandmother just because she refuses to bake a cake for a wedding, for customers she regularly serves otherwise? . . . No, don’t change the subject: This isn’t about whether you think she should bake the cake; it’s about whether the government should compel her to do so. If she won’t pay the fine, should the government try to garnish her back account? If she withdraws the cash from the account before government agents garnish it, will they demand it from her? If she doesn’t pay, should they arrest her? Throw her in jail? Should they? Should a grandmother be forced, at the point of a gun, to bake a cake?

HOST: I said not to change the subject. This isn’t about a Jim Crow–like denial of a public conveyance or of basic sustenance. This is about a specific ceremony, and somebody with a particular art who desires not to participate in that ceremony because it would violate his faith. What about a cantor? If a devout Catholic who is a professional singer regularly contracts to sing “Ave Maria” at weddings but declines to do so at a same-sex ceremony, should the singer be punished? Should a cantor be compelled by the government to perform a prototypically religious song at a ceremony directly and specifically forbidden by the cantor’s church?

HOST: You keep making irrelevant points; you’re not answering my questions. Should government compel somebody against their conscience? Should it put the person out of business? Should it put a muzzle on the soprano because she won’t sing “Ave Maria” at the government’s command?

HOST: Mr. Stephanopoulos, how about you? Would you like to see a Muslim baker forced to produce a cake explicitly for a same-sex ceremony? Let’s leave religion aside: Would you like to see a black baker forced to make a cake featuring a heterosexual couple in hooded robes in front of a burning cross? Would you fine the black baker for refusing?

HOST: Come now, Mr. Stephanopoulos, surely you know that Jefferson and Madison argued forcefully not just for religious liberty but for the ever-so-slightly larger principle they called “liberty of conscience.” How is this different? Do you reject Jefferson and Madison? And how about the repeatedly recognized freedom of association, which implicitly but undeniably stands at the intersection of two recognized First Amendment rights, those of speech and assembly? If this freedom of association is equivalent to racial discrimination, then why was it the NAACP that secured the most significant ruling enshrining this right into law, in NAACP v. Alabama in 1958? And hasn’t the court determined that, especially when it comes to faith-based determinations, this same right presupposes a generalized (although sometimes rebuttable) freedom not to associate?

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HOST: No, Mr. Stephanopoulos, the question is this: Do you disagree with the 1958 NAACP?

HOST: Okay, Mr. Schultz, you keep trying to interrupt and jump in. Here’s your turn. You didn’t answer a question the other day that you were asked by Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, a question further elucidated by Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. . . . No. don’t interrupt, I’m asking the questions here. You have praised Apple CEO Tim Cook for blasting Indiana’s religious-freedom law. The question is, What about Apple’s own select denial of services? Apple will not allow an app for a faith-based statement called the “Manhattan Declaration.” Why can Tim Cook deny this service to people of faith, but people of faith can’t deny their services to Tim Cook if Cook wants to marry a man? What is the difference, Mr. Schultz? What is the difference?

HOST: No, this is an absolutely key question: Tim Cook would deny a photographer the right to decline to use his technology and art for a ceremony to which he would object. But Tim Cook declines to allow the use of his technology for an expression to which he objects. What is the difference? In fact, if anything, Cook’s denial is worse: The folks pushing the Manhattan Declaration merely want Cook’s technology, his machine (as it were). . . . No, you let me finish, Mr. Schultz, or I’ll cut off your microphone. . . . The Manhattan folks want only Cook’s machine, but not his active, personal skill and art. But Cook wants not only the photographer’s camera, his machine, but also his active, personal, artistic ability — his personal, unique expression. Why is it okay to compel expression, but not okay to compel the mere sale of a machine? Isn’t the First Amendment protection of speech even more applicable to the photographer than to Apple’s app?

HOST: No, don’t try to turn this into your blather about somebody hating homosexuals. This is about government compulsion, Mr. Schultz. It’s about government compulsion against an individual artist, a worker making something like $50,000 a year who is facing a fine of something like a hundred grand. You’re supposed to be for the little guy, Mr. Schultz. Mr. Cook makes, what, tens of millions of dollars a year, and Apple makes profits of many billions. Why shouldn’t Cook be fined one one-thousandth of his salary, or Apple be fined one one-millionth of its earnings, for denying Manhattan’s app, if the photographer is to be fined twice as much as his annual salary and put out of business?

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HOST: I’m tired of listening to you three. You won’t answer whether you would use government force and government fines against a grandmother. You won’t answer if you would force a soprano to sing “Ave Maria.” You won’t say why a Muslim baker is immune to your strictures. You won’t say whether you are willing to defy Jefferson, Madison, and the NAACP. You won’t say why Tim Cook and the Apple behemoth can do what a single photographer can’t. How is a photographer, or a singer, any more of a “public accommodation” than an app that allows the entire public access to a declaration of faith?

Here are some further questions for you to think about as you retreat back to your anchor desks. Should a Jewish student group be forced to be open to Muslims? Should the Little Sisters of the Poor be faced with the choice of either closing down, and thus sending thousands of the ill and elderly poor into the streets, or of materially cooperating in what the Sisters consider grave and intrinsic evil?

Where do you draw the line in favor or religious liberty? Do you ever protect it? If so, where? Or do you protect only the purported right of people to be free from religion? Why do you say the government can compel a photographer to use his art against his will, but not only can’t compel but indeed can’t even allow high school students to say a prayer or even the Pledge of Allegiance in unison?

Do you not recognize your own hypocrisy? Do you not appreciate what freedom is? Do you not understand that all liberty springs from freedom of conscience, particularly from the conscience of faith? (If you don’t, by the way, read The Theme Is Freedom, by the recently deceased Stan Evans. Maybe you’ll learn something.)

Have you any conscience at all, sirs? At long last, sirs, have you left no sense of decency?

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer. 

Quin Hillyer — In addition to National Review, Quin Hillyer has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New Republic, The Guardian (UK), and Investor’s Business Daily.

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