Several states have recently introduced bills that would allow people to withhold services to their fellow Americans if they base their decision on "sincerely held religious beliefs." In Arizona, one of these bills has made it all the way to Gov. Jan Brewer's desk, and she is currently deciding whether or not to sign the bill into law.
These bills are deemed necessary by religious conservatives on account of several cases where Christian business owners refused to offer services to LGBT people, claiming that serving them would violate their own religious convictions about homosexuality and same-sex relationships. In one of the most celebrated examples, a case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of New Mexico, where it was ruled that a Christian photographer did not have the right to refuse to take photographs of a same-sex couple's commitment ceremony based on her religious beliefs.
Giving a special pass that allows an individual with "sincerely held religious beliefs" to chose not to do business is fraught with problems.
For instance, who is to decide what is sincere? Are the religious beliefs sincere if a cake seller will sell a cake to two divorced individuals for their second marriage but not to a same-sex couple for their first? Or does this cafeteria-style approach to Christianity expose a lack of sincerity of religious belief? This raises the question of who will determine the sincerity of a belief. The courts? If so, which religious leaders will advise the courts on that question, as it is clear that religious leaders increasingly disagree on the question of gay marriage and the full dignity of LGBT people?
Also, will the freedom to refuse to serve those who offend "sincerely held religious beliefs" extend to people of one faith expressing hostility toward people of another faith? If a Christian believes that Hindus worship a deity or deities that she finds offensive, will she be allowed to refuse to photograph a Hindu wedding or make a cake for a Hindu holy day based on her "sincerely held religious beliefs"?
And what about sincerely held beliefs that are not religious? At a time when 40 percent of people under 30 hold no specific religious affiliation, and when many of those identify as "spiritual but not religious," how will the laws address those with "sincerely held spiritual beliefs"? And given the rise of atheism and secular humanism, will those who espouse no formal religion also have their sincerely held beliefs protected?
Religious people should be very hesitant to go down the path of discrimination based on "sincerely held" beliefs, as it could be used against them. What if someone were to claim that their sincerely held belief caused them to not serve fundamentalist religious people? If these bills pass, you can guarantee that the reputation of religious people is gong to take a serious hit.
Laws that say we can pick and choose whom we work with based on our "sincerely held religious beliefs" are dangerous to our society. These bills promote further division at a time when America is already deeply divided, and they encourage self-segregation into isolated communities that only serve people with whom we are "sincerely" compatible.
Most of us work every day with people about whom we have a sincere belief that their lifestyle, politics, religion, ways of earning a living, or sexual orientation are wrong and ill-informed and go against all that we hold sacred. We run across them driving taxis, doing our taxes, working in restaurants, selling our groceries, policing our neighborhoods, and even running our government. Although we may hold a sincere belief about how wrong they are, we try, as best a we can, to be civil to one another, recognizing that we are living in a diverse country made up of all kinds of people, some of whom we will agree with, and most of whom we will not.
Bills that encourage communities to rip apart the fabric of America should be seen for what they are: discriminatory and deeply un-American. That is my sincerely held religious belief.