Several readers have contacted me, indignant over a decision by Coeur d'Alene officials that a Christian-oriented wedding chapel must offer its services to gay couples. They believe this violates the First Amendment to the US Constitution, specifically the 'separation of church and state' doctrine.
Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple.
- The wedding chapel is precisely that: a for-profit venue for weddings. Despite its explicitly Christian orientation, it's not a church and has no congregation. That makes it a business in the eyes of the law, as far as I'm aware; and, also as far as I'm aware, it's registered and pays taxes as a regular business rather than a non-profit religious corporation.
- The lawsuit filed on behalf of the chapel claims that the state can't force ordained ministers to act in violation of their faith or beliefs. I agree - when they're acting in their capacity as ordained ministers. If they're operating a for-profit wedding chapel as a business concern, explicitly offering its services to the general public, they're doing so as businesspeople rather than ministers of religion. Throughout the USA laws prevent any business from discriminating against customers and employees on the grounds of race, sex, religious orientation, etc. Religious establishments - churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc. - have certain exemptions from such ordinances, but this isn't a religious establishment.
I have real sympathy for the conundrum facing the proprietors of the wedding chapel, but they've just run headlong into the problems faced by any business offering services to the general public. If you want to claim religious exemption from the law, you need to restrict your services to members of a particular faith or a particular congregation, all of whom understand and voluntarily accept your doctrines. If you offer your services on a cash basis to all comers, I'm afraid the situation has changed. It's precisely the same as the Colorado bakery that refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The owners' position was perfectly in order for a religious establishment, but not for a civil one. They couldn't see the difference, but a judge could - and did.
Unfortunately, in the USA too many churches and religious individuals have assumed for decades - centuries! - that since public morality and our laws generally conformed to the dictates of their religious beliefs, they could impose the same restrictions on their customers in the business world. That was never legally valid - merely a happy coincidence (for them, at any rate). The world has changed. Unfortunately for people of faith, that means we have to adapt ourselves to the society in which we live. If certain religious principles are so important to us that we can't betray them at any cost, then we need to withdraw from commercial activities where those principles will bring us into conflict with the law. If we try to impose our principles on others who don't share our beliefs, we have no recourse when others of different faiths insist we offer them the same accommodation - for example, a dhabihah (ritual slaughter) facility that may not meet regulatory standards and norms, or loudspeakers broadcasting a call to prayer (in competition with our church bells) . . . or even a gay pride parade rolling down the (public) street outside our churches.
We live in a post-Christian society. As we used to say in Africa, "There's no use farting against thunder". Our task is not to throw up our hands in despair and abandon our faith: rather we must find ways in which to remain faithful to our principles whilst respecting those of others who don't agree with us. We may not dictate to them, just as they may not dictate to us. It's going to be a long and difficult process for both sides to work out an accommodation.
Part of that accommodation for Christians will have to include acknowledging Jesus' words: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s". In the Coeur d'Alene case, the modern equivalent of Caesar makes the business laws.