Your Religion Is No Excuse for Discrimination

The American marketplace should be open and free to everyone.

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Rick Nelson Flor, right, holds a flower bouquet as he stands next to his partner Robert O'Rourke before their wedding ceremony in West Hollywood, Calif., Monday, July 1, 2013. The city of West Hollywood is offering civil marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples free of charge Monday.

When I walk into my local grocery store here in Virginia, I'm on a mission. The goal is my list and the list is simple: a carton of egg whites, skim milk, broccoli, ground turkey and low sodium vegetable juice.

Now, I'd be less than honest if I didn't confess to sometimes picking up a few unnecessary things: maybe that good Colombian chocolate bar found in the "baking section" or miraculously finding myself in the "chips, no fries!" aisle, where I study label after label until I can convince myself that this one bag of chips is actually healthy and good for me. So yeah, I don't stick just to the list but I'm on a mission and the clock is ticking.

As I make my way to the checkout line, it's a sea of tabloids, run-of-the-mill chocolate bars, Altoids and yet another mini-bottle of Purell with a belt clip. What a novel idea: clipping sterility to your waist. The mother of three in front of me, the ultimate multi-tasker, is handing over her coupons, telling the kids to "put that back please" and swiping her debit card, all the while keeping a fevered smile on her face. She is truly amazing in my eyes.

This, my friends, is the free marketplace of America, that beautiful place where you can buy most anything you want if you have the money to purchase it. They have something you want and you have something they want. It couldn't be simpler. It couldn't be more American. It couldn't be more gratifying.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Now go west 2600 miles and walk into Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Wash., and meet the newest litmus test for a free and open marketplace: Barronelle Stuzman, the owner of Arlene's. Back in March, Stuzman declined to sell wedding flowers to a gay couple in this sleepy little city 200 miles east of Seattle. The case garnered national attention because Washington state bans this type of commercial discrimination in the marketplace.

Washington is one of 21 states and the District of Columbia that prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the issue here isn't employment. What's at stake here is whether or not Stuzman is prohibited under local, state or federal law from not selling her flowers to gays and lesbians because of, in her own words, her "relationship with Jesus Christ." Washington state bans this type of discrimination based on sexual orientation. There is no federal law mirroring Washington state's non-discrimination law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination "based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce." Sexual orientation wasn't included in that landmark legislation, although many states and localities have done so on their own.

So now the state of Washington has sued Stuzman, and she's countered with her own legal action. This case will be interesting to watch unfold. In the meantime, a national discussion is taking place and it should. Just how far can one's deeply-held religious beliefs reach into the marketplace? Is it acceptable for any business owner in the public realm to have a litmus test for her customers?

[Vote: Should Congress Pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act?]

My chosen religion is perhaps the most private aspect of my life. My belief in God is strong, but that relationship I have with God is my relationship, not my priest's or anyone else's. I don't shove my faith down anyone's throat, and I demand the same treatment, including from those in the business sector. That's why the Arlene's Flowers case is so troubling to me. If I were to walk into Stuzman's shop, and say "I need two boutineers," would she ask me what they are for? It's none of her professional business what my personal commercial needs are. As an Episcopalian, if I walked into the hypothetical "Atheist's Flowers" on Main Street, USA and they refused to sell me the same thing they sell to atheists, shouldn't I be just as angry?

Using the convenient argument that most religions do not accept gay marriage as a reason to discriminate is a canard. Religions belong in churches, synagogues, mosques and one's own home. One's faith isn't a commercial activity and shouldn't be treated like one. It's a relationship with a higher being, not a BMW. (Selling religion is alive and well in this country but that's a different column for a different day.) Selling a commodity, something someone wants, doesn't have limits.

I don't know Stuzman, nor do I know the gay couple in this case. In the link above, she declares forthrightly that she has gay friends and loyal gay customers, including the couple suing her. They've spent thousands of dollars over the years in her shop, but she won't sell them flowers for their wedding. Last time I checked, Arlene's Flowers was in the business of selling flowers.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

I'm reminded of the civil rights fights from the 1960's. Merchants were just fine with "colored money" as long as that money came in through a different entrance and ate at a different counter. Then things turned nasty as the country began seeing the horrors of the Bull Connors' of the world and others of his ilk. Just before civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated on his front doorstep at age 37, he told a local gathering of protestors to stop spending their money on "Main Street." His words were powerful.

Religion was used to maintain segregation for years in this country and today, religion is being used by Stuzman to discriminate in the open and free marketplace.

By forcing her religious views on her consumers, Barronelle Stuzman is the perfect hypocrite. Her customers don't walk in and ask her what her religious beliefs are as a stipulation to buying her flowers. I don't walk into the grocery store, saunter up to the service desk and demand to know the CEO's place of worship. What then gives Stutzman the right to impose her religious beliefs on her customers?

"Coloreds Only" signs are now a thing of the past, but in Stutzman's world, her religion gives her the power over any customer at any time. And I, for one, think that's not just unchristian, it's just bad business.

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