I am trying to find a neutral description of what the religious liberty bill the Mississippi governor just signed into law would and would not do. The Washington Post said:

It is the first law to prohibit state government from taking any discriminatory action against a person, religious organization, business or government employee for refusing services to LGBT people because of “sincerely held religious beliefs” or “moral conviction” against same-sex marriage, extra-marital sex and/or transgender people.

That is misleading. When I first read that, I thought that it would give a fundamentalist Christian cashier at Burger Doodle the right to refuse to serve fries to gay customers. That would be wrong, no doubt. But it turns out that that’s not exactly what the law does. ABC News says:

Specifically, religious organizations protected by the law can:

– Decline to “solemnize any marriage” or provide wedding-related services based on their religious beliefs or moral convictions. Those services run a full gamut, from wedding planning, photography, disc-jockey services and floral arrangements to cakes, venues and limos.

– Decide “whether or not to hire, terminate or discipline an individual whose conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent” with their beliefs or moral convictions.

– Decide to whom they will sell or rent housing they control based on their religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Does anybody actually believe that religious organizations should not have those rights — even if you believe that exercising those rights would be wrong? More from ABC News:

In addition, for others protected under the law:

– Adoptive or foster parents can raise a child they’ve been granted custody of by the state with the same beliefs and convictions of those protected by the law.

– Medical and therapy professionals can decline “treatments, counseling, or surgeries related to sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning” and “psychological, counseling, or fertility services” to people whose lifestyles violate their religious beliefs.

– People can create “sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming, or concerning access to restrooms, spas, baths, showers, dressing rooms, locker rooms or other intimate facilities or settings.”

– State employees and those acting on behalf of the state may recuse themselves from authorizing or licensing legal marriages, although they may not stand in the way of others doing so.

With the possible exception of the state employees’ provision, I fail to see why any of this is outrageous. Ryan T. Anderson goes further:

HB 1523 specifies types of people and types of organizations for particular protections—including religious organizations, medical professionals and professionals working in the wedding industry, and government employees. It crafts careful protections for each type of entity.

For example, HB 1523 says that the government can never discriminate against a religious organization because it declines to solemnize or celebrate a same-sex wedding, or because it makes employment decisions in keeping with their religious beliefs about marriage. It prevents the government from discriminating against religious organizations that do adoption or foster care work in keeping with their religious beliefs about marriage as the union of husband and wife.

When it comes to professionals, HB 1523 says that the government can never discriminate against a surgeon, psychiatrist or counselor because they decline to do sex-reassignment surgery or decline to do marriage counseling for a same-sex marriage. The bill makes clear, however, that it cannot be used to deny visitation or proxy decision making to a same-sex spouse, nor to deny any emergency medical treatment required by law. Likewise, under HB 1523 the government could never penalize a photographer, baker or florist who declined to help celebrate a same-sex wedding.

As for government employees, HB 1523 strikes a reasonable balance. It says that the government cannot discriminate against employees for speech or conduct they engage in in their personal capacity outside of their job responsibilities when it comes to these three beliefs.

And regarding the state employees’ provision, Anderson says that the bill:

says that a government employee may seek a recusal from issuing marriage licenses, provided they do it ahead of time and in writing, and provided they “take all necessary steps to ensure that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed.” A commonsense win-win outcome.

Isn’t it? It’s saying that religious people with conscience objections don’t have to participate in the licensing of same-sex marriages, but they have to register their disapproval in advance, and make it so that no gay couple seeking to marry faces any obstacles or delay to their wedding from the state licensing authorities. Why is that unfair?

I reserve the right to revise these opinions if I read a more complete account of what the law does and doesn’t do. But at this point, it seems like a legitimate attempt by a socially conservative state to offer limited and specific protections to people who have a sincere religious objection to changing views on homosexuality. I might be wrong about this, and appreciate correction if so.

My friend Matthew Sitman strongly disagrees, and in particular focuses on conservatives complaining about big corporations punishing states for attempting to protect religious liberty in these matters. Excerpt:

What the conservative position on LGBT rights and religious freedom, exemplified in the Mississippi and North Carolina bills, amounts to is this: they want maximal ability to opt out of any and all situations that might involve doing business with LGBT people or treating them in minimally considerate and decent ways, but then rail against others for not going along with it. They want the state to sanction their own discrimination, but then are horrified when others freely choose to follow a different, better path. They want their freedom, but despise the free choices of others.

Anti-LGBT conservatives, in other words, want to live in a world made over entirely in their own image. Freedom means getting their way, all the time. The future of religious liberty in this country will be a perilous one indeed if it becomes associated with such nonsense.

The problem with this is that the pro-LGBT side also wants maximal ability to impose its own views of right and wrong in these matters on everyone else, and to refuse to treat religious dissenters in minimally considerate and decent ways. Consider the Washington state florist Barronnelle Stutzman, who is paying a heavy legal price — and who may lose her business — because she declined on conscience grounds to provide flowers for her friend and longtime customer’s same-sex wedding. Stutzman explained her position in the Seattle Times:

That’s why I always liked bouncing off creative ideas with Rob for special events in his life. He understood the deep joy that comes from precisely capturing and celebrating the spirit of an occasion. For 10 years, we encouraged that artistry in each other.

I knew he was in a relationship with a man and he knew I was a Christian. But that never clouded the friendship for either of us or threatened our shared creativity — until he asked me to design something special to celebrate his upcoming wedding.

If all he’d asked for were prearranged flowers, I’d gladly have provided them. If the celebration were for his partner’s birthday, I’d have been delighted to pour my best into the challenge. But as a Christian, weddings have a particular significance.

Marriage does celebrate two people’s love for one another, but its sacred meaning goes far beyond that. Surely without intending to do so, Rob was asking me to choose between my affection for him and my commitment to Christ. As deeply fond as I am of Rob, my relationship with Jesus is everything to me. Without Christ, I can do nothing.

I’m not ashamed of that, but it was a painful thing to try to explain to someone I cared about — one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. But Rob assured me he understood. And I suggested three other nearby florists I knew would do an excellent job for this celebration that meant so much to him. We seemed to part as friends.

But then I was sued.

Seems to me that treating Barronnelle Stutzman with “minimal consideration and decency” would at least put filing a lawsuit against her out of bounds. She does not believe in refusing to do business with gay customers across the board. She had been doing so for years, knowing that her customers were gay. And she suggested three other places where her gay friend could find a florist to accommodate him. But that wasn’t enough.

I can understand why progressive-minded people in Mississippi would not want to trade with a bakery or florist that would not participate in gay weddings. That’s just a price that those business owners would have to be willing to pay for following their conscience. And Matthew is right, to a certain extent, that free-market conservatives have limited grounds for objection when a corporation refuses to do business in a state it regards as discriminatory. But I think conservatives are perfectly within bounds to point out that companies like PayPal have no problem doing business with countries that are far more discriminatory against gays and lesbians than the State of North Carolina is, but this doesn’t affect their desire for corporate profits.

The fact is, very few people on either side have a consistent, non-absolutist view on what constitutes an acceptable degree of religious liberty in an era of greatly expanding gay rights. Is there any situation in which gay rights supporters believe that a business owner or religious organization should have the right to opt out of providing a product or service to gay couples, on conscience grounds? If not, then religious liberty is meaningless. It’s only meaningful when it protects the right of sincerely religious people to do unpopular things in accord with their conscience.

The problem is that gay rights and religious liberty really are a zero-sum phenomenon in most ways. That is, the advance of one comes at the expense of the other. Nobody can have his way completely without causing the other side some loss. The problem for social and religious conservatives is that the other side either doesn’t understand the compromise it demands from the religiously dissenting minority, or it doesn’t care — and with the rare exception of places like Mississippi, the other side holds most of the power.

I would bet that in 20 to 30 years, this would hardly be an issue in Mississippi. In my home state, Louisiana, a majority of adults under the age of 50 support same-sex marriage. Social change is coming, and coming fast, even in the most culturally conservative parts of America. But having won so many victories, and so quickly, the LGBT rights side seems determined to rub the noses of the culture war’s losers in their own humiliation.

One more time: if I am missing something about the Mississippi law that ought to affect my opinion, please let me know.

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