There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about religious freedom in our country. Apparently in the U.S. there isn’t any at least from the point of view of states like Indiana that passed, and now amended the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Titles can be deceiving. From the title of the Act for example you would think there was no First Amendment to our constitution that over two hundred years ago established our liberty when it came to religion. States like Indiana, Arkansas and recently Louisiana however believe that our religious liberties have been taken away and therefore need to be “restored.” More accurately they believe the First Amendment needs to mean more than preventing our country from adopting a national religion or guaranteeing our right to worship as we desire. For the legislators in those states religious freedom needs to include the right for a business owner to withhold services from people they believe to be immoral.
These new laws have mostly been established in response to states allowing same sex couples to marry. The argument goes like this: a Christian baker who believes homosexuality is a sin should have the right to withhold their services and refuse to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian or gay couple that would like one. Standing on the Bible, they claim they are allowed to refuse to give their services to another because that is what Jesus would do.
The problem, at least for us Christians, is the annoying caveat we read about in the Gospels: Jesus did not withhold his services based on his religion. Oh, he wanted to, at least at first. In the Good News according to Matthew for example, when word of his healing powers reached Tyre and Sidon, a woman, who was not Jewish, with a daughter who was very ill, approached Jesus and asked for his help. His reply: a racial slur. He called the woman a “dog”, which in his day was just about as bad an insult as one could give. She would not be deterred by his racism however and pressed him to heal her daughter. Thankfully, in the end Jesus’ love of God was stronger than his fear of the “other”. As he healed her daughter, he too was healed of his own prejudice. I imagine, in that moment, he finally understood that to be the child of the Divine meant that his gifts were for all who were in need (Mt. 15:21-31).
Following Jesus freely is not about withholding our services and it is not about taking ancient texts of Scripture literally. It is about embodying them as Christ did by recognizing the humanity of every human being and loving them as much as we love ourselves, perhaps more. It is also about being a part of the building of God’s kingdom that entails the radical transformation of our hearts and our society, a vision for which Jesus lived and died and for which God raised him from the dead.
If laws like the ones proposed in Indiana, Arkansas and now Louisiana were to stand, what is to keep anyone from denying their services to a person and claiming it is about religion? What is to prevent anyone from denying someone a place at the “counter” and claiming it is about religion?
As Christians living in the United States we are blessed. We do not have to worry about practicing our religion freely. Our only concern is that in the name of religion people will be discriminated against if legislation like the ones proposed by the states mentioned above go into effect. We can take a lesson from Jesus on this…he learned a valuable lesson from the Canaanite woman that day two thousand years ago I hope we do too.
Angela Maddalone is the Pastor at Palisades Presbyterian Church in Palisades, NY.