Does Religious Freedom Have a Role in American Business?


On March 26, 2015, Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SEA 101) in a private ceremony. This act calls upon the right to religious freedom, ensuring that businesses have certain exemptions under this law.

The most relevant example of this law in action was the Indiana restaurant, Memories Pizza, which refused to cater a gay wedding because participation in this event is against their Christian beliefs.

After this event, thousands showed their outrage, voicing their anger at this discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

This event and response has created an opportunity for an important conversation and serious consideration about whether religious freedom has a role in American business.

While you think about this question yourself, consider the following points:

What is freedom?

My first thought is that freedom means that I can do whatever I want. But after further reflection, I realize that this is not true.

Freedom means the ability to make choices, but it does not allow me to infringe upon anyone else’s rights or my own rights. The law comes into play to make sure that everyone is equally free, meaning that my freedoms can’t take away your freedoms.

What is religious freedom?

“Religious freedom” has an important part in American history. Many of the first settlers came here to escape religious persecution in their home country, and this reason is still relevant for many immigrants today.

According to the US Department of State, “[Religious Freedom] shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in a community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.”

What part does freedom play in the business world?

Businesses are run by American citizens, so clearly our freedoms outside of business must also apply to us while we are dealing with business. However, the question still stands: Does this particular bill actually protect and encourage appropriate religious freedom, or did the legislators abuse their power?

What does “Freedom” look like for the LGBTQ Community?

In order to consider this question, let’s revisit the example of the restaurant that refused to cater a gay wedding because it is against their Christian beliefs.

What freedom looks like for the LGBTQ community specifically:

-They are able to love whomever they choose (publically)

-They are able to dress as they choose (publically)

Now ask yourself, does the restaurant owner’s choice to not serve at a gay wedding take away either of these rights? Does this action take away or deny their freedom as a member of the LGBTQ community?

What’s the difference between Religious Freedom and Unlawful Discrimination?

The definition of “discrimination”, according to this source, is “unfair or unequal treatment of an individual (or group) based on certain characteristics, including: Age, Disability, Ethnicity, Gender, Marital status, National origin, Race, Religion, and Sexual orientation.”

At first glance, it seems that this bill would fall under the definition of discrimination. However, there is one important distinction to consider:

The religious freedom bill does not allow businesses to legally refuse to serve a group of people based on their age, disability, race, gender, marital status, national origin, religion, and sexual orientation.

Rather, it ensures that no one has to participate in an event or support a function that is specifically prohibited by their religious doctrines.

So, if a Christian firefighter refuses to put out a fire at a gay marriage, he will not be protected under this law, because putting out the fire does not require any participation in a gay marriage. In fact, he will be taken to court for illegal discrimination.

But, if a Christian bakery refuses to make a cake for a gay wedding, because participating or celebrating a gay wedding is against their religious doctrines, they will be protected under this law.

No matter what we think about this new bill, we can rest assured knowing that the second that a business (Christian or anything else) refuses to serve members of the LGBTQ community for any other reason, they will be charged with unlawful discrimination.

Decide for Yourself:

My first article for Women’s iLab outlined the necessary steps for dealing with controversial subjects like this one.  As I prepared to write this article, I found it helpful to revisit these steps.

I hope that the research and perspective I shared in this article will contribute to you making a confident decision about the constitutional validity of this law.

No matter what we all decide, it is incredibly important to be knowledgeable and poised on these important subjects that will have a dramatic effect on our freedom, our lives, and our society as a whole.

About the Author: Norah Kearneyunnamed

I am currently a junior at Webster University of St. Louis, Missouri. I’m working on my BA in English with a focus on creative writing. I plan to use my degree for writing, editing, teaching, or a bit of all three.

Read more from and about the author: Norah’s WiLab Profile