Though it might seem like they’re striking a blow for religious freedom, owners of licensed businesses who try to deny services to same-sex couples on the basis of religious belief are missing the mark. Through such actions, they misinterpret the point of religious freedom in both the constitutional and biblical senses alike.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
So written in the Bible are the red-letter words of Jesus Christ (Matthew 22:21). This short and hotly contested passage reflects an early, divinely sourced version of the secular values we now find enshrined in our Constitution. They are values that guarantee both our religious and personal freedoms––values that are slipping away far too quickly.
Of course, what constitutes freedom and what does not is a highly debatable question, but let’s consider the details.
When Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver, tried to deny a gay couple service for their wedding simply because of his religious beliefs, he was struck down by a Colorado court for anti-gay discrimination. Then, in a nearly complete reversal, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phillips, painting him as a victim of anti-religious bias that resulted in the violation of his First Amendment rights.
However, Jack Phillips’s First Amendment rights were no more violated than were his religious freedoms.
In this context, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” means when Caesar issues a business license, the business owner automatically agrees to operate it according to Caesar’s laws. In the United States, this equates to the separation of church and state––debate over. Accordingly, no for-profit business or nonprofit organization should be allowed to refuse service to gays, lesbians, or to anyone else. Why? Because Caesar’s law, in this country, is constrained by the 14th Amendment, which states that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” The Colorado court, therefore, had it right when they found that Philips had indeed discriminated against the gay couple.
Along similar lines, consider a recent congressional rule change in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Illhan Omar and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which permits wearing the hijab on the House floor, a space where such a thing had previously been forbidden.
Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice (a.k.a. Jefferson’s Manual)––the rules of the House of Representatives––explicitly states that “when any member means to speak, he is to stand up in his place, uncovered,” and that, “no member is to come into the House with his head covered.” Yet Omar and Pelosi made the distinct case that religious freedoms of House members are themselves protected by the First Amendment to dress as they please––Omar later stating on Twitter, “It’s my choice.”
In January, Omar became the first person ever to overturn the ban on head coverings, effectively changing the perception of religious symbols. This was a huge win, but we shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate.
However, the problem is if we are going to respect all religions, along with all the diversity doing so would entail, our government institutions must be entirely free of religious expression. Our modern-day Roman Senate is no place for religious symbols or religious considerations. It is a sacred place, but sacred in its own way: a secularist way. Those things that are God’s should be rendered unto God, indeed, but they should be rendered within His holy spaces or His followers’ own homes and other private spaces. In a modern society, places of government should be secularly unified.
On the flipside, by separating government buildings from religious symbols, we might actually promote religious freedom and cultural diversity rather than repress it. Just as Jesus’s red-letter words on the issue referred to the responsibility of Christians to pay taxes to Caesar despite their religious affiliation, so too must all religious institutions in our increasingly diverse society respect the neutrality of our government.
So, what’s the solution? First, instantly revoke the business licenses from those who refuse to recognize the supremacy of the 14th Amendment when it comes to questions of discrimination. The minute a business decides to discriminate in any way, shape, or form, its license should be immediately withdrawn. The House as well as the other branches of government must heed the rules set forth in Jefferson’s Manual so as to retain the secular nature of our system of government.
George Freeman, Chaplain
Universal Life Church