clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Utah businesses need religious freedom bill

In our pluralistic society, religious freedom is not just one policy among many; it is the foundation of the liberties we enjoy as Americans. It is our first freedom.
In our pluralistic society, religious freedom is not just one policy among many; it is the foundation of the liberties we enjoy as Americans. It is our first freedom.

Balancing religious liberty with LGBT rights should be a critical concern for the Utah Legislature. Without reservation, we agree that no one should lose their job or business because of their sexual orientation. But neither should individuals be forced to promote messages or participate in activities against their religious beliefs.

Consider Barronelle Stutzman, a great-grandmother and florist for 40 years. When Barronelle first met her customer Rob Ingersoll, she appreciated his creativity and thought they really “hit it off.” When Ingersoll asked her to make flower arrangements as a gift for his same-sex partner, she gladly accepted. For almost a decade, he was her regular customer. Far from an exception, Barronelle had many customers and employees who were gay, and she never refused to serve or hire anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation.

After Washington state legalized same-sex marriage, Ingersoll and his partner asked Barronelle to do the flower arrangements for their wedding. Barronelle would have sold him the flowers, but felt that she could not do the arrangements herself. For her, flower arrangements are deeply personal artistic expressions, even “part” of her. “As much as I love Rob,” she says, “I just couldn’t be a part [of the wedding].” She continues, “if I did Rob’s wedding, it would be from my heart because I think he’s a really special person.”

Unable to compromise her beliefs, Barronelle recalls, “I just took his hands and said, ‘I’m sorry. I cannot do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.’ ” Barronelle’s attorneys explained, “Barronelle and numerous others like her around the country have been more than willing to serve any and all customers, but they are not willing to promote any and all messages.”

Word spread quickly on social media, and before the couple even filed a complaint, the state’s attorney general sued Barronelle’s business and, in an unprecedented move, Barronelle personally. Not only is Barronelle’s business at risk, but her personal assets, even her home.

Some may say this is of no concern for Utahns because the proposed nondiscrimination law deals only with employment and housing, not the services of private businesses, called public accommodations. But the lawsuit against Barronelle alleges that she violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act, not just Washington’s nondiscrimination laws. To prevent Utah’s consumer laws from being similarly misinterpreted, the Legislature should pass specific religious freedom accommodations.

Tolerance in a diverse society requires reasonable accommodations and respect for religious beliefs. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines already require employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. “Examples of some common religious accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies or practices.”

Employees may request not to work on their Sabbath day or during religious holidays. They may request accommodations to dress codes to permit their wearing religious garments or to avoid clothing considered immodest. They may also elect not to participate in activities against their religious beliefs, such as abortion, by requesting shift substitutions or job reassignments.

The law should afford business owners similar accommodations. A business owner should be free to decline providing services on their Sabbath; a fashion designer to decline making immodest clothing; a publisher to decline a message offensive to his beliefs; a private venue to decline hosting certain celebrations, such as a bachelor’s party.

This is uncontroversial, of course, unless the accommodation appears instead to be an excuse for discrimination. Washington’s attorney general accuses Barronelle Stutzman of discriminating on the basis of her customer’s sexual orientation. It is of no consequence that Barronelle has a long history of serving gay customers and hiring gay employees. Because only gay couples have same-sex weddings, the attorney general argues that Barronelle is discriminating against gays. But this is too simplistic.

A health worker who declines to assist with an abortion is not discriminating against women, even though only women have abortions. A Palestinian publisher who regularly serves Jewish customers does not discriminate by declining to print pro-Israel messages. A public relations firm that regularly serves Mormon clients does not discriminate by declining to promote the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But are religious accommodations a plot to allow businesses to discriminate against gays? Far from it. Robin Fretwell Wilson, a family law professor at the University of Illinois, supports same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination laws. But she also proposes model legislation that accommodates the religious beliefs of individuals and small businesses. Religious freedom shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

In our pluralistic society, religious freedom is not just one policy among many; it is the foundation of the liberties we enjoy as Americans. It is our first freedom.

Michael Erickson is an attorney. Jenet Erickson is a family sciences researcher and a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University. They live in Salt Lake City.