The Wilting Bouquet of Religious Freedom

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

But months following the passage of gay marriage legislation, the Attorney General of the State of Washington, Bob Ferguson, is suing florist Barronelle Stutzman, as a result of her refusal to provide flowers for a gay couple’s wedding.

The case is based upon the provisions of the State’s Consumer Protection Act that bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Attorney General is seeking an injunction requiring the florist to comply with the law. Additionally, he is demanding a fine of $2,000 for each violation.

The florist maintains that her religious faith restricts her from doing this work. She stated: “He [Ingersoll] said he decided to get married and before he got through I grabbed his hand and said, ‘I am sorry. I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.’ We hugged each other and he left, and I assumed it was the end of the story.”

The Attorney General says the law is clear on the subject: “If a business provides a product or service to opposite-sex couples for their weddings, then it must provide same-sex couples the same product or service.”

Those who support the florist argue that the First Amendment to the Constitution surely supports her right not to participate, in this instance, to enter a contract to arrange and set up the floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding, an activity that is against her religious faith.

For me however, there is a third side to this situation. Everyone agrees the right to religious freedom is a fundamental principle in this country. The involvement of the state with a particular religion was painful to minority groups, the Jewish people included. Keeping these two entities, the church and the state separate from one another, protecting the church from the encroachment of the state, and in turn its encroaching upon the religious beliefs and practices of the members of that church, was a particular concern of our founding fathers.

Surely in this instance, it would appear from the remarks of the florist, the potential customers, the gay couple, were not upset with her explanation. Obviously she is not the only florist in town. Yet the state has decided to make this a cause célèbre.

As we all know, Judaism is a religion of law. The intricacies of the application of that law form the very basis for the seminal work of our sages, the Talmud. The analysis of our sages was so detailed and intricate, that at times one sage would say to another, referring to the very subtle approach of the school of Pumbedisa.

“Are you from Pumbedisa where they can string an elephant through the eye of a needle?” (Baba Metzia 38b) Yet even in this very structured legal system, there is a principle that is employed in cases where, after all the detailed discussion and analysis to determine the letter of the law, a scriptural verse is employed, “And you shall do what is right and proper, in the eyes of the L‑rd” (Deuteronomy 6,18). Relying on the knowledge and experience one has of Jewish jurisprudence, the Judge-Rabbi should deduce an amicable approach to the problem at hand.

There is no question that the florist’s intention was to observe the tenets of her faith as she understood it. It was never a matter of discrimination in her eyes. As she described the encounter, “We hugged each other and he left, and I assumed it was the end of the story.” This would seem to indicate that the potential customer understood clearly that she was sincere in her religious intentions, and did not harbor any discriminatory feelings against him. Why then does the state inject itself into this situation? No society can function if at every turn, in every interpersonal encounter, we must seek “big brother’s” intervention.

Especially in a case such as this one in which the issue of the moral standing of same-sex marriage in the florist’s faith is at issue – an issue for many religious Americans, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, injecting the state in such situations, especially when the parties involved seem to have agreed to disagree is folly.

The tragedy of our day is that honest discussion, honest debate about issues facing society is no longer the norm. Every group with an ax to grind on a particular issue immediately seeks to involve the courts and the law. And when it comes to acts traditionally understood by our Judeo-Christian ethic and American society as immoral, this is all the more the reality. Agreeing to disagree, allowing each side to put forward its opinion before the moral court of society in discussion and debate is desperately needed in America to tone down the rhetoric and hostility that too often is a result of seeking to influence lawmakers, mere vote counters, to pass laws reflecting morality. Politicians possess no unique credential or special insight to discern what is moral or immoral.

As I wrote not too long ago in the Chicago Jewish Star, as an Orthodox Rabbi I can agree that two individuals, be they friends, brothers, mother and daughter, sisters, etc., who have committed to a life partnership should have all the rights traditionally associated in law with the lifetime partnership of a man and a woman. If we could return the word marriage to its traditional role as defining the religious sanctification of a relationship between a man and a woman, and rather have government sanction life partnerships, the issue of “gay marriage” would be laid to rest. I can see no objection to the government providing equal support and financial benefit to lifetime partners. Indeed, as the law stands at this juncture two sisters, spinsters, who have lived together for fifty years, devoted to each others well-being and sharing their finances, face the same limitations under the law as do two men or two women living together, sharing their lives and finances.

The time for human discourse reflecting upon the very future of the moral fiber of our society is at hand. At the very core of this discourse should be the realization that a society comprised of citizens from many cultures. as well. as religions, does itself a disservice when at every turn it attempts to legislate morality. In matters of morality the law of the land is the court of last resort.