Must American Businesses Convert or Die?

Hobby LobbyJesus said: What are you people like? What kind of people are you? You are like children sitting in the market and shouting to each other, “We played the flute, but you would not dance! We sang a funeral song, but you would not cry!” (Luke 7:31)

I visited Hobby Lobby for the first time last month. The store was clean and well organized; staff was friendly and helpful; the store had a great selection of crafty products at reasonable prices. The only indication that this business was on the margin of acceptability was the occasional Christian melody I heard playing while browsing, and the ample selection of religious items for sale.

Of course that in itself is not a problem. After all, religious people are a significant share of the market so to cater to them makes good retail sense. Their money is as good as the next guy’s.

The problem is the products and the music aren’t just about marketing and the bottom line—that would be perfectly OK—rather, they are a reflection of the deeply held beliefs of the employer. Moreover, those beliefs inform the decisions of the corporation, and in the case of Hobby Lobby, that means that the owners believe human life, even at the cellular level, is sacred and must be protected. Hence, when it came to their attention that a handful of the contraceptives to be provided by their company were abortifacients, their conscience kicked in and they demurred, refusing to provide those drugs. Not all contraceptives, mind you, but those drugs which terminated a pregnancy.

Heresy! That a company would not provide all contraceptives, regardless of their nature, to their employees proved to some an unacceptable threat to liberty. What followed was the Supreme Court challenge, Burwell (formerly Sebelius) vs. Hobby Lobby. The outcome of that landmark case was to uphold the right of a company to make corporate decisions based on the personally held religious beliefs of the owners.

Notice what was at stake here. The court was deciding whether a business owner could be allowed to make decisions consistent with his/her religious worldview and still remain in business. It was deciding whether Hobby Lobby should be required to change its point of view and modify its creed—convert or die. In this case the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation such as Hobby Lobby could still participate in the free market.

Other businesses have not been so lucky.

Hide Out in the Pews

Consider the case of Cynthia and Robert Gifford who own a farm in New York. As part of their business they use their property for a variety of gatherings—pumpkin patch, corn maze, birthday parties; a rather impressive selection of family activities. They also have been a popular venue for weddings and receptions. And therein lies the problem: As Christians they feel strongly that a marriage ceremony reflects a covenant before God and that marriage is between a man and a woman. Therefore, they did not feel they could provide the venue for a same-sex wedding. That got them in trouble with the State of New York when a lesbian couple complained that they were denied services at the Gifford’s “Liberty Ridge Farm.”

It may be important to note that the Giffords were willing to host the reception even though they declined to host the ceremony. That surprised me. It seemed to me that both events would have been problematic, but that was their choice. Either way, they wound up in court and came out of the courtroom with a $13,000.00 fine and a decision to make. Would the fine serve to rehabilitate them and change their behavior? Would they modify their convictions as a cost of doing business? According to reports, they chose instead to modify their business. In the future they will not host wedding ceremonies on their property.* That will result in a significant loss in revenue, but it should prevent any future conflicts of conscience and keep them out of hot water with the state.

Predictably there were shouts of outrage from Christian and conservative circles—an attack on the first amendment, they cried. An affront to religious liberty! There were those who differed, though. Consider this comment posted to a report at the Religious News Service web site:

[Liberty Ridge Farm is] not a church and it is open for business to the general public. The state’s anti-discrimination laws are pretty clear on the subject…If you want to be able to discriminate on services provided to the public, declare yourself a church or do not advertise openly…Religious freedom does not give you the right to discriminate in open commerce. Such discrimination is committing a willful harmful act against another. Free Exercise of religion has never ever allowed such a thing.

The message is clear. If you have religious convictions, you should not be able to keep them and remain business. You’ve a right to your beliefs as long as you don’t intend to live consistently with them in the world of commerce. You need to be willing to compartmentalize your faith and surrender to the state. It’s the law. Otherwise, you should retreat to your church, keep quiet and make a living some other way…if you can.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that persons of sincere and unyielding faith must be driven from the marketplace. They must take the mark or be forbidden to buy or sell.

So, am I saying meanness, rancor and hostility are appropriate reactions toward consumers with whom we disagree? Am I proposing a license to slam the door or pontificate in the face of someone who requests services that impinge upon our conscience? Absolutely not. To kindly refer a customer to a competitor who does not have the same compunctions we have is appropriate and respectful. Only know that a customer whose business we decline may well circulate a bad review among friends and across the internet or, as was the case in New York, take us to court.

And if that happens, what should be our response? To arms! Take up your swords and charge once again into the culture wars? Christians, write your congressperson! Circulate a petition! Demand your rights!

No. It has always been too late for that.

These are the days of counting the cost. We live in times that force us to consider what we can and cannot do as a matter of conscience, and having discerned the course we must follow, live accordingly. If the demands of faithfulness and conscience call us to defend ourselves before the courts then make a defense, and if in the end our business must convert or die, then die it must.

*At this writing, the web site of Liberty Ridge Farm lists weddings and receptions as part of their line of services. It is unclear when (or if) that will be updated.

3 thoughts on “Must American Businesses Convert or Die?”

  1. “You’ve a right to your beliefs as long as you don’t intend to live *consistently* with them in the world of commerce. ” [Emphasis added]

    Consistently! Aye, there’s the rub! I think you make a good argument regarding Hobby Lobby, but the issue gets a bit more complicated when you turn to the wedding industry. Willamette Week also made a good argument last year regarding Christians living *consistently* in the world of commerce.

    WW reporters called (incognito) florists and bakers in Oregon who had refused to provide services to LGBTQ couples planning weddings. In separate calls, WW inquired about flowers (or a cake) for a baby shower (and mentioned in the course of the conversation that it was for a single mom having her third baby, all by different fathers), for a divorce party, for an embryonic stem-cell research grant, and for a gathering of a coven, among other things. As I’m sure you’ve probably guessed, none of the businesses had any problem whatsoever serving any of *these* sinners. It was only LGBTQ sinners that they balked at.

    I would be interested to know if Liberty Ridge Farm has ever provided wedding services to any couple where one of the members has a former spouse living. Scripture is at least as clear that remarriage after divorce is sin as it is that homosexual practice is sin. Until the church stops turning a blind eye toward *heterosexual* sexual sin–such as remarriage after divorce–nobody’s going to listen to her when she tries to dress herself in martyrs robes for “standing up to” (read: discriminating against) the LGBTQ community.

    It’s way past time for the straight Church to start digging at the sexual sin log in her own eye, and to start doing some heavy-duty repenting and public confession. That’s the only way she’s ever going to develop any moral authority whatsoever to talk about LGBTQ issues. At least that’s the view out my window.

  2. In our own fair city we had a bridal shop closed because the Filipina who operated it refused to sell a white wedding dress to a man. Of course, this is different from a wedding ceremony, but…

    I suspect that we North American Christians are going to have to distinguish between our Christian wedding covenant and the secular recognition of “wedded bliss.” Europe has had a long tradition of two ceremonies, and maybe we’ll have to have private, church-only weddings for Christians in addition to the secular signing of the wedding register.

    1. Thanks, Lila. I have been considering whether I, when I perform a wedding, can sign an official document as a “representative of the state” when I know a marriage covenant is a statement before God. I, too, have wondered if followers of Jesus may one day refuse state sanctioned “marriage” in favor of a civil union combined with a separate covenant celebration with the community of believers. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

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