Religious freedom or legalized discrimination?

There existed a period of time in the United States of America less than a century ago when human beings who happened to be African American were denied access to the same establishments and amenities as Caucasian Americans.  An owner of a restaurant or a movie theater or a neighborhood bakery could, and did, refuse to serve people based on one factor, skin color, even long after oppressive segregation laws changed.

Thankfully, there was a percentage of the population, both black and white, which shared a different perspective, a growing number of forward-thinking people who chose to courageously commit their lives to creating changes in the way people with diverse backgrounds and appearances interact with and relate to each other.  Activist groups such as the Freedom Riders, with a mere 13 members to begin with, were among the many who were not only determined to end segregation, they were willing to actually die to make it happen.  And that is exactly what they did.

Fast forward to 2014, and here we are again staring in the unforgiving face of discrimination and experiencing the stinging divisiveness of belief systems which are supported by ideas of separatism as the State of Arizona attempted to pass the Religious Freedom Bill recently.  Senate Bill 1062, if passed, would protect businesses, corporations, and people from lawsuits after denying services based on a “sincere religious belief.”  However, opponents of the bill fear that the legislation would lead to businesses discriminating against people, such as those in same-sex unions, based solely on the owner’s religious beliefs.

Over the last several years, Christian photographers, bakers, florists and others in wedding-related occupations have faced lawsuits and criminal penalties all across the country for declining to provide their goods and services for same-sex wedding ceremonies and receptions.  And according to Nate Kellum, Chief Counsel for the Center for Religious Expression, these actions have cost people their livelihoods as they face daunting court costs, fines, negative press and even boycotts for refusing to compromise their faith.

After both chambers of the state legislature approved S.B. 1062, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, claiming it “could divide Arizona in ways we could not even imagine and no one would ever want. The bill was broadly worded and could result in unintended negative consequences.”

What does the passing, or not passing, of a bill like this mean to you?  Do we want to live in a world where business owners are selectively serving people who walk through the doors of their establishments based on sexual orientation or skin color or socioeconomic status or political preference?   Are a conservative Christian’s religious beliefs being compromised if they bake a cake for a same-sex couple?  If a restaurant owner serves a meal to a gay couple, is he or she being deprived of the opportunity to “live out their faith”?   Should a hairdresser be able to turn away someone who has had an abortion or refuse to cut the hair of a person who has given birth to a child outside of marriage?  Do we want to see the day (again) when a realtor won’t sell a house to an interracial couple?

Conversations with God invites us to consider the possibility that some of our greatest gifts and remembrances are provided to us within the context of the exact opposite showing up in our lives.  Just as we declare ourselves to be loving, someone who is perhaps more difficult to love appears.  Just as we declare ourselves to be patient, someone who requires a higher level of patience arrives in our experience.  Just as we declare ourselves to be kind, someone less-easy-to-be-kind-to will be placed before us.  It is one thing to declare ourselves as loving, patient, or kind; it is another thing to be provided the opportunity to actually experience and know ourselves as loving, patient, or kind.

So what might happen if a person were provided the opportunity to express the depths of their faith and love with somebody who stood before them in a different form, perhaps challenging their current viewpoint?  What then might they be allowed to know about who they really are and the capacity of their ability to love?

We may observe some of these laws get pushed through the political system, perhaps by influential groups with deep pockets, and some of these kinds of laws already exist on the books.  But regardless of what words get etched into the voluminous pages of our law books, what is the society we truly desire to experience and live in?  Do we want to exist in a world where a list of “suitable” or “unsuitable” patrons is tacked to the front door of the places we frequent?  Who is truly free in that kind of system?

It only took 13 people back in the 1960s to ignite a social revolution by forming the Freedom Riders.   What will it take now?  And where will you choose to be?

(Lisa McCormack is a Feature Editor at The Global Conversation and lives in Orlando, Florida.  To connect with Lisa, please e-mail her at

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