Arkansas passes religious freedom law, because what could go wrong?

Rep. Bob Ballinger of the Arkansas House (not pictured: puppets)

Arkansas House member and sponsor of religious freedom Rep. Bob Ballinger (not pictured: puppets)

I’m not saying that if a wizard transformed all the members of the Arkansas House of Representatives into animals, Rep. Bob Ballinger (R–Berryville) would be a walrus who goes “harrumph!” But he wouldn’t be a mallard, would he? That’s because a mallard is gay, and Ballinger sponsored the religious freedom law that Arkansas passed yesterday. That law is totally not designed to let businesses refuse service to homosexuals. That would be discrimination, and that’s not what Ballinger is about. Earlier this session, however, he did sponsor another bill that forbid Arkansas towns and cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances protecting gays and lesbians. But that’s a coincidence, owing to the widespread discrimination against Christians in America and the comparative absence of bias against gay people. Here’s Ballinger explaining to the Times why he didn’t think to clarify that his bill wasn’t about anti-gay discrimination:

“All the way through this I thought it was unnecessary because of the fact that it didn’t do everything that everybody was saying it was doing. In hindsight maybe I would have done it to maybe avoid all the pain.”

He said that a few minutes after the bill passed.

Ballinger’s hindsight began immediately after he got what he wanted. That’s how it goes for a lot of people, including Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, who announced yesterday that he would push for legislation to make it clear that his state’s religious freedom law could not be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians. He still hasn’t answered George Stephanopoulos’s question, because this law is about religious freedom and only religious freedom. Fortunately, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was there to answer for him, saying “the government shouldn’t force religious businesses and churches to participate in wedding ceremonies contrary to their owners’ beliefs.”

First of all, Loving v. Virginia, dick.1 Second, a “religious business” isn’t really a thing; that’s called a church. Third, what kind of wedding runs contrary to the beliefs of churches besides the gay kind?

And while we’re asking unanswerable questions, when was the last time government forced a business to participate in a wedding? That turns out to be last week, when a judge in Washington ordered a florist to pay a $1,000 fine plus $1 in court fees for refusing to provide flowers for a gay wedding. Barronelle Stutzman, owner of the confusingly-named Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts, had sold flowers to Robert Ingersoll for years but refused to do so when he was getting married.

That violated Washington’s anti-discrimination law, which stipulates that business provide the same services at the same prices to both gay and straight customers. I submit that it also violated the principles of her own professed Christianity—a religion whose sacred texts have a couple things to say about homosexuality but many, many more passages about being kind to people. Which story sounds more Christian to you?

  1. Florist sells flowers to gay man for years, even though she doesn’t approve of his lifestyle, and develops such affection for him that she is happy to provide flowers for his wedding, even though she gets grossed out when he kisses a dude at the end.
  2. Florist sells flowers to a gay man for years and then, when he comes in assuming he can also buy flowers for his wedding, she tells him to go to hell.

I’m not saying I know what Jesus would do, but I know what I would do if I sincerely believed in his teachings. That’s the problem with these religious freedom “restoration” acts. When they apply to historically established rituals like eating peyote, they can be easily and narrowly interpreted. But when they apply to whatever belief a person who goes to church might hold, they elevate self-professed religious people above the law.

I don’t think hating gay marriage is a central tenet of Christianity. I think that at this historical moment, anti-gay bigots tend to be Christians. They have found scripture to support their prejudice, but it’s not as though they loved gay marriage until they went to church and learned it was wrong. Christianity is a stalking horse for bigotry in these laws, and that should make them repellent to anyone who takes religion or government seriously.

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