Religious Freedom in Practicing the Platinum Rule

04/02/2015 06:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

Picture this: The scene is Memories Pizza, a pizza and ice cream parlor in northern Indiana, owned by Crystal and Kevin O'Connor. Responding to a question from a local reporter from the ABC news affiliate regarding their opinion on the recently passed law in their state, the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Crystal asserted: "If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say 'no'."

She argued that, "We're not discriminating against anyone, that's just our belief and anyone has the right to believe in anything. I do not think it's targeting gays. I don't think it's discrimination. It's supposed to help people that have a religious belief."

Kevin, Crystal's father, centered the issue on the foundation of choice: "That lifestyle is something they choose. I choose to be heterosexual. They choose to be homosexual. Why should I be beat over the head to go along with something they choose?"

Crystal told the reporter that she was hopeful the law would provide legal protection for her restaurant to deny having to cater events, such as same-sex and also non-Christian wedding receptions.

Now picture this: The scene is Des Moines, Iowa, 2011. A joyous and excited engaged couple, in preparation for their upcoming nuptials, entered Victoria Childress's bake shop for a taste testing appointment for their wedding cake.

The tradition of the wedding cake dates back centuries. It symbolizes the anticipation of a sweet life together. The couple cut the confectionery delight hand-in-hand representing their first of many combined and cooperative undertakings in marriage. They feed each other a piece to show their joint commitment.

When the couple entered Victoria Childress's shop, the owner inquired who was getting married? A member of the couple, Janelle Sievers, told the baker that they were, she and her partner Tina Vodraska. Upon hearing this, Childress informed the couple: "I'll tell you I'm a Christian, and I do have convictions. I'm sorry to tell you, but I'm not going to be able to do your cake."

Later, according to Janelle, "I don't think either one of us knew what to say. We were just shocked."

Childress gave her reasons: "I didn't do the cake because of my convictions for their lifestyle. It is my right as a business owner....[I]t's to do with me and my walk with God and what I will answer [to] him for."

The Iowa State Supreme Court in 2009 voted unanimously to uphold a lower court ruling legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, preceded by the Iowa Legislature, which amended Iowa's Civil Rights Act in 2007 to include "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" in the areas of employment, housing, education, and public accommodations.

I mention these two cases in an attempt to distinguish two vital concepts. The first is the issue of morality, which I see based on our values and our set of beliefs derived by some from religious faith traditions, and by others from secular humanist principles. We live in a country that protects all of our moral belief systems, which no one has the right to take from us. Our beliefs are our own to cherish and to live by as long as we deem them fitting. Some people may refer to morality as the "Golden Rule," whereby we treat others how we want to be treated.

A closely aligned but also somewhat distinct notion is the concept of ethics. For me, this applies to what some refer to as the "Platinum Rule," whereby we treat others how they want to be treated. We consider their needs, their best interests, their values and beliefs, even if these do not necessarily connect or bond with our own.

As a university professor of pre-service teacher education students, I raise the distinction between moral convictions and professional ethics when we discuss issues of controversy within the field of education. In this regard, I discuss how as teachers, they may at times find their moral teachings in opposition to the lived experiences or beliefs of their students.

For example, their students may "come out" to them as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, or queer, or they may live with same-sex parents or guardians. Or some of their students' parent(s) or care givers may be undocumented workers. Or students may be followers of faith traditions they may not understand or approve. As teachers, however, they have ethical obligations to serve all their students with the highest degree of professionalism, and treat them equitably.

But I would ask, doesn't an owner of a publicly-operated business have similar ethical obligations, even in those states that currently do not have legally-mandated non-discrimination statues?

On the matter of choice: though I hate engaging in this diversionary and pointless debate on the "causation" of same-sex attractions, for the sake of argument, if these attractions stem from some sort of choice, well, so do religious affiliations. Should we as a society condone the denial of services or products from people who believe differently from business owners, like the O'Connors, within a publicly-operated establishment?

In actually, this issue falls squarely in the realm of civil and human rights and not on causation.

But I ask, on which sacred tenets would a baker refuse to bake a confectionery delight; a photographer refuse to preserve joyous moments; a caterer refuse the pleasures of delectable sustenance (though I personally don't know anyone who would actually order pizza for a wedding reception); a florist refuse the beauties from the garden; a jeweler refuse a band connecting human souls; a realtor refuse showing shelters signifying new chapters in one's book of days; a shop owner refuse selling the common and special objects supporting and enhancing life; a restauranteur refuse anyone a time away from the kitchen; a spiritual advisor refuse to treat one's neighbor with respect?

Within this backdrop, then, I ask business owners, how would people who enter your shop want to be treated, and what are your ethical obligations?