Those who are my friends know that I am a serious fan of the 1970s detective drama Columbo. The thing I really love about this show is how police detective Columbo never considers a murder case completely simple. He never buys into the idea of an "open-and-shut" case if he has a nagging feeling, no matter how insignificant it is.
That nagging feeling is what I get when I hear about marriage clerks, hotel owners, Catholic adoption agencies, and, recently, cake bakers who refuse to serve gay couples. No doubt you have heard about them and will probably hear a lot more as religious right groups trying to hinder marriage equality canonize these folks as "saints and martyrs" besieged by so-called radical gay activists supposedly trying to force them to choose between their livelihood and religious freedom.
In fact, they have a term for this sort of thing. They call it "religious liberty."
There is a certain simplicity to these cases, which garners them a degree of support. Some of these folks (excluding Catholic charities, who have no right to taxpayer money if they discriminate, and marriage clerks, who should put the needs of constituents over their own desires) seems to have a right to serve whomever they wish. And one could even make the case that they are in fact forced to choose between their livelihoods and their "religious liberty."
But then there goes that nagging feeling again. These cases aren't as simple as they are made out to be. What about the rights of couples refused service? No matter how you attempt to soften the blow, the idea that someone will not serve you because of how they inaccurately view you still hurts. It's dehumanizing, it's cruel, and it's embarrassing.
In a recent situation in Iowa, a cake baker scheduled an appointment with a lesbian couple who desired her services, only to use that time to not only tell them "no" but also criticize their sexual orientation.
Then that same cake baker made several news appearances to complain about how she was a victim, backed by several religious right groups spinning the same talking points.
And I haven't even talked about what a message of "I will not serve you" would send to a child in a same-sex family who may be present at the time. Nor have I mentioned the unnecessary inconvenience same-sex couples will have to endure if they live in an area where the so-called religious martyr is the only one who can address their needs.
Then you have to consider just how gay couples will tell who will or won't serve them. How would they be able to tell without the courtesy of signs saying, "We don't serve gays." Of course, if such signs did exist, I'm sure those who put them up wouldn't think that they were being cruel -- just like folks who put up "No Irish Need Apply" signs didn't think they were being cruel.
And then you have to ask yourself just how far the argument of "religious liberty" will go. Today it's hotels and cake shops. Tomorrow it may be restaurants or apartment rentals.
So I almost understand the "religious liberty" argument, but then comes that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that just won't go away, the feeling that "religious liberty" is just another way of saying "allowed discrimination," and that some folks will use the phrase "religious liberty" to deflect attention from the victims of this "allowed discrimination."
Lastly, the thing that bothers me the most is the sad fact that the phrase "religious liberty" has less to do with religion or liberty and more to do with telling gay couples that they are inferior.