The owner of a flower shop in Washington state recently denied service to a gay couple who asked to use her services for their wedding ceremony. She told the customer that she couldn’t help in the wedding because of her relationship with Jesus Christ. According to the news story, the florist had served the customers for years, even as the couple had sent flowers to each other, but declined to participate in the wedding because she believes in exclusively heterosexual marriage. The customer was shocked, and the story gained popularity when he told about his experience on Facebook.
The situation has legal, commercial, and ideological aspects, and much of the controversy in these situations is not “discriminating” between them. The clearest evidence of this is in the term ‘discrimination,’ evoked in this and nearly all other cases like it. At least one lawyer says that this is a violation of Washington’s law against discrimination, while the store owner claims she does not discriminate. She is of course responding to the issue in legal terms, because she is clearly discriminating, in that she decided not to provide service based on a given set of criteria; namely, a normative understanding of marriage. Of course, neither of them knows whether the case involves legal discrimination, since the law has no power until its judgment, and a case hasn’t been made formally yet. This is an interesting point in itself, that according to the report the couple is not certain whether they will pursue a case, but there are certainly those who want to use cases like these to advance a principle. There’s no problem with this necessarily, but it would take determination for the couple to decide not to take action. In any case, discrimination is something we all use in our daily decision making, and is necessarily the case in terms of religious belief.
In terms of the commercial aspects of the case, one could make an argument either that the florist should not be in business if she is not going to provide equal service, or that the couple should go somewhere else if they have a problem with her treatment. In a purely capitalistic sense, it makes little sense that either the store owner should refuse the transaction or that the customers should force the issue when they could receive better service elsewhere. My guess is that the story will not end well for the florist, because those customers who are offended will stop giving her business, and those who give her moral support will not likely actually support her business. But in terms of the woman’s religious convictions or the legality of the issue, the commercial aspects are irrelevant.
In terms of the moral or religious justification, there is more logic in the florist’s actions than she is given credit for. For the vast majority of Christians, their beliefs do not require them to hate gay people, though it’s clear that a vocal minority seem to. Most are told and attempt to make a distinction between “sinner” and “sin,” a distinction that is not fully appreciated by outsiders, to whom the florist’s actions seem erratic or contradictory. She feels free to employ and befriend gay people (in theory—chances are she doesn’t have an extensive list of gay friends), but participating in their wedding is different. Why? Well, typically the florist’s level of involvement at a wedding goes beyond preparing the arrangements in the shop and handing them to the customer. Often it means being onsite and helping in preparation for the ceremony. Whether that is the case or not, it becomes an issue because she (like the couple) views the ceremony as sacred, as involving powers higher than herself. (I have no idea whether the couple is religious or not. They may simply want the civil benefits that marriage offers, but it likely has more significance. Either way, they have entrusted the state with giving their relationship a significance that it would not otherwise have.) Marriage is a relationship with important religious significance in Christianity, as well as other traditions.
Those who would claim that the woman has been deceived by her preacher into discriminating against gays miss the bigger picture. It is not a misinterpretation of Christianity to be against gay marriage. A normative understanding of heterosexual marriage has been the dominant interpretation for the tradition’s entire history. It certainly behooves the religious hierarchy to reinforce beliefs that keep their congregants reliant upon their services (e.g., that marriage is sacred and that marriages should be religious in nature), but this issue extends throughout history. Is it possible that Christianity could be interpreted in a way that makes it more favorable to gay couples? Yes, but it hasn’t been. The situation is not solved by taking a liberal stance that asks, “What’s the big deal?”
The point is that someone loses in this situation. Either the couple loses their ability to engage in transactions without being discriminated against, or the florist is forced to provide a service that violates her religious belief. For what little it’s worth, I wish that the situation were such that the florist just performed the services for her customers and everyone was happy. If I were a florist at right this moment, that’s what I think I would do. But I don’t have the conviction of a tightly defined understanding of marriage. I would bank on the idea that the world is not going to fall apart if more gay couples get married, but many think that gay marriage is a symptom of societal decline. The fact that the belief is sincere does not automatically make it legitimate, but it does mean that it shouldn’t be belittled as unimportant, or the response of heartless bigotry. A way forward might involve a more sincere public discourse about the importance of the positions of both sides, a discourse that exposes the malleability both of religious and legal interpretation behind the rigid exteriors that both sides put forward.
Do you see a win-win situation here? Should there be one? If not, why not?