In the aftermath of Indiana passing its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Tomas Heneghan argues that when you allow these subjective beliefs to opt a citizen out of a law, then law itself fails to hold any value or power.
“But what about my religion?” So go the calls for conscience clauses and religious freedom laws. These pleas cross borders and time, all seeking the same thing: An exemption from law and modern democracy. These diligent religious warriors are fighting for opt-out clauses for laws which simply do not suit them.
 
In recent weeks the US has seen an increase in these religious freedom exemptions. Last week Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, making it legal for people and companies in the State to refuse goods and services to others based on religious beliefs.
 
Before the ink could dry on the controversial new law, family owned company, Memories Pizza announced it would not cater for same-sex weddings. They distinguished this denial of services from any refusal to serve gay people in general. It closed temporarily but returned after raising over 800,000 US dollars from supporters.
 
Now the Senate President, David C. Long has proposed changes to the law providing for protections for LGBTQ people in Indiana. Georgia and North Carolina are waiting on similar laws, while Arkansas has already matched Indiana’s lead.
 
You might ask why we, in little old Ireland, should be concerned by this. Well, glaringly obvious is the idea of solidarity - Injustice in one country must be fought by the world. Maybe the prospect of a domino effect might be the jolt the world used to express outrage about the rise in these discrimination laws.
 
In Ireland, however we have our own religious freedom warriors. Ashers Bakery Company in the north is currently in bitter battle with the Equality Commission and a gay man who took exception to their refusal of service last year.
 
The story, in short: a gay man, Gareth Lee asks a cake shop, Ashers Bakery to bake a cake. Lee wants an image of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie printed on the cake with the message “Support Gay Marriage.” The owners, the McArthur family, refuse to bake the cake with the message. The refusal is taken to be a denial of service based on the sexual orientation of the customer.
 
Similarly, early last month the Republic was forced to contend with its own form of Ashers Bakery. A printer refused to print wedding invitations for a gay couple, one of whom had been a usual customer of the printing company. The printers, Beulah Print said they were not against homosexuality, but held an opposition to same-sex marriage.
 
Beulah followed the refusal up with a public statement saying: “We, at Beulah Print, are Bible-believing Christians who are committed to standing by our conscience and God’s word.”
 
But why didn't the men in both cases just go somewhere else? We have, after all, seen an outpouring of offers from other bakeries and printers to provide the services originally denied. The answer though is so simple it shouldn’t even need to be explained.
 
You’re standing in a restaurant, waiting to be seated with your partner for a romantic meal on a Saturday night. The manager walks over to you and says the restaurant disagrees with your “lifestyle” and it would be ungodly to seat you as long as you insisted on sitting with your partner. You can either walk out quietly and find another slap-up eating house or you do what humanity has often done throughout history - You can stand up for yourself and say “No, that’s not right and I wont put up with it.”
 
Maybe it might help to picture the couple standing in that restaurant as interracial. Should they go somewhere else? Should they hush up and not “bother” others with their apparently insignificant problem? What if every restaurant in their town refuses to serve them? Would you say “Well maybe they should just go to another town that will be more tolerant?”
 
And there, right there, is the problem with conscientious objections and religious freedoms translating into opt-out clauses in law. Because while one person’s god and translation of their holy book dictates that the gays are demon-producing degenerates, another person’s may oblige them to damn people under six foot in height, or those of African decent. When you allow what are effectively personal and subjective beliefs to opt a citizen out of a law, then law itself fails to hold any value or power whatsoever.
 
In essence, “I stabbed that boy with the Nike shoes to death because God told me those who don’t wear Adidas are sinners and need to be killed,” becomes a valid excuse for murder under the notion of religious freedom exemptions.
 
Ireland is currently in the eye of the largest social hurricane since the 1995 divorce referendum, and with that, religious freedom opt-outs raise their illogical heads. There is now talk of some demanding a religious exemption should marriage equality become law through the May 22nd referendum. One petition doing the rounds calls on the Minister for Justice to, “provide for and safeguard the right of people on grounds of ‘conscience’ to abstain from endorsing same-sex marriages while in employment, worship or through social interaction.”
 
Despite our laws on employment and their protections for LGBTQ people, there remains an opt-out clause for religious groups who control hospitals and schools. This means in the majority of Irish primary and secondary schools it is legal to fire, or simply refuse to hire, a person based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. While the Government are making moves to remove this clause, we are still waiting.
 
The simple solution - and yes, it is no more complicated than this - is to get out of the business you’re in if you can’t or refuse to sell goods or provide services to any customer based on your religious beliefs. If you insist on screaming “But you’re attacking my religious freedom” or “You’re victimising me,” just consider what religious freedom to someone else could mean. Don’t forget others have consciences too.