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Religious Liberty and Gospel Conviction

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Imagine you are a follower of Christ who believes the Bible. Your driving desire is to love God, and flowing from this, you long to love others. You also happen to be a professional photographer. One day a woman in your community contacts you about her upcoming event. She says to you, “My female partner and I are celebrating our commitment to each other in a formal ceremony, and we would like you to photograph it.” Immediately your mind starts racing. What should I say? You think to yourself. And you begin to process your personal convictions.

On one hand, you want to serve the community in which you live, including the people who make up that community. You’ve built a business bent on using your talents to bless people just like the woman who is making this request. Yet at the same time, your love of others is a subset of your love for God, and you believe he has designed marriage as the union of a man and a woman for the demonstration of his character and the display of his gospel in the world. Consequently, you have a hard time conceiving how you can participate in a celebration of something that you are convinced God condemns. You can’t escape the thought that your participation would violate your conscience. And even more important, in your heart you can’t avoid the conviction that such participation would dishonor God.

In speaking to this woman, then, you decide to politely decline. In so doing, you find yourself gratefully resting in the “free exercise” of religion that has been granted to you in our country—the “freedom of worship” not just in private, but also in public.

A Disturbing Surprise
Imagine your surprise, then, when you discover that you are being sued for your decision. And imagine your further surprise when you learn that the government on which you were leaning for this “free exercise” of religion tells you that the law requires you to compromise your conviction in such a circumstance.

This is no imaginary scenario for Elaine Huguenin, co-owner of Elane Photography in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When Vanessa Willock asked Huguenin to photograph her commitment ceremony with another woman, Huguenin politely said that she does not photograph such ceremonies. Willock, despite finding another, cheaper photographer for her ceremony, filed a complaint with the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission, claiming that Elane Photography was guilty of discrimination. The court ruled in Willock’s favor, and Elane Photography was ordered to pay a large penalty.

This case became all the more concerning when it eventually went before the New Mexico Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling against Elane Photography. In a unanimous verdict, the justices ruled that “when Elane Photography refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, it violated the NMHRA [New Mexico Human Rights Acts] in the same way as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races.”[1]Beyond the fundamental flaw that we have already noted in equating ethnic identity with sexual activity, the stated reasoning behind this ruling was frightening, to say the least.

In a concurring opinion to the court’s ruling, Justice Richard Bosson wrote that Elaine Huguenin and her husband are “compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives.” He went on to say that, “the Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects Huguenins in that respect and much more.” However, the court went on to say, “in the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different.” This, the court said, is “the price of citizenship” in our country.[2]

A Dangerous Distinction
When one reads this, one realizes how dangerous the distinction between supposed “freedom of worship” in one’s private life and the “free exercise” of religion in the public square is. The highest court in the state of New Mexico has said that while Elaine Huguenin is free to exalt her God in the church she attends, she is not free to express her beliefs in the business she owns. In other words, she is free to practice her faith in private for a couple of hours at the start of the week, but she is forced to deny her faith in public for multiple hours every other day of the week. In the end, Elaine Huguenin is coerced to violate her conscience and dishonor her Creator as a citizen in her culture.

Elane Photography appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which declined to hear the case. Thankfully, however, the Supreme Court did hear a similar, significant case regarding Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood in which, by a 5-4 decision, they ruled that leaders of closely held corporations do indeed have freedom to apply their religious convictions in the way they lead their corporations (in this case, the court ruled that government cannot force such corporations to violate their religious beliefs by purchasing abortion-causing drugs).[3]Doubtless similar cases will be considered in the years to come, and the narrow vote in the Hobby Lobby case, combined with other factors, make it very likely that religious liberties for Christians are increasingly endangered in America.

So what are the principles undergirding the way we process circumstances like those that Elane Photography faced? This is a question not just for the Huguenins to ask, but for all people of any faith to ask in a culture that is rapidly redefining the “free exercise” of religion. A quick perusal of cultural trends indicates a plethora of potential situations we are likely to encounter. Increasing numbers of professions require state licenses (a nearly fivefold increase over the last sixty years), and oftentimes these licenses include conditions that clash with traditional religious beliefs. More and more, employers and employees, doctors and pharmacists, teachers and administrators, insurers and investors, and ministers and ministries face governmental mandates to provide goods and services that contradict their personal convictions. More and more, companies and corporations are establishing policies for employees that require them to violate their consciences when it comes to matters of faith. Continued effort to quell the public profession and application of faith affect how followers of Christ (and those of other religions, for that matter) are allowed to speak, what they are allowed to wear, how they are allowed to organize, and what they are allowed to do in the communities where they live.

As soon as I write this, I want to say that my aim is not to be an alarmist. But on further reflection, maybe it is. Maybe an alarm does need to be sounded, and maybe all of us need to seriously consider how to counter a rapidly shifting religious culture with clear gospel conviction.

–– This excerpt is slightly adapted from David Platt’s book Counter Culture: Following Christ in an Anti-Christian Age, 242–246.

[1]Elane Photography, LLC, v Willock, 309 P. 3d 53 (NM: Supreme Court 2013).
[2]Ibid.
[3]You can read the Court’s opinion at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-3454_olp1.pdf.

David Platt
David Platt is the president of the International Mission Board (IMB), Teaching Pastor at McLean Bible Church in Washington D.C., and founder of Radical. He is the author of several books, including Radical, Follow Me, and Counter Culture.
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