The Corner

Of Conscience and Catering

Kirsten Powers writes in USA Today about a proposal in Kansas to let businesses refuse to serve same-sex couples.

It’s probably news to most married people that their florist and caterer were celebrating their wedding union. Most people think they just hired a vendor to provide a service. It’s not clear why some Christian vendors are so confused about their role here.

Whether Christians have the legal right to discriminate should be a moot point because Christianity doesn’t prohibit serving a gay couple getting married. Jesus calls his followers to be servants to all. Nor does the Bible call service to another an affirmation. . . .

Christians backing this bill are essentially arguing for homosexual Jim Crow laws.

Perhaps the proposal in Kansas sweeps too broadly; it is certainly possible, and I have not looked into it. But regardless of the wisdom of the proposal, I do not think Powers’s argument works. I’ll leave aside the Jim Crow comparison, except to note that it seems to me more incendiary than apposite.

The key point, I think, is that whether the state should compel someone to violate his conscience or protect him in his exercise of it cannot turn on the contents of that conscience. As I argued recently in NR, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act seems to me to get this right. It doesn’t make the protection of conscience an absolute principle. It allows the individual conscience to be overridden when it’s the least restrictive means of serving a compelling governmental interest. The inquiry can’t turn, though, on the government’s judgment of a theological question. In the case of the HHS mandate, for example — where, as it happens, Powers has done a fine job of making the case for religious liberty — the argument for coercing the Little Sisters of the Poor can’t be that their theological scruples about contraception are simply incorrect understandings of Christianity. Plenty of Christians believe that they are incorrect. But it’s not the place of the government to make and enforce that call. In my view, a conscientious Christian could certainly take Powers’s view about what florists and caterers should do. But that doesn’t mean that a conscientious Christian who reaches a different conclusion should be forced to act contrary to it.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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