Back in the day, I went to school with a girl from a Pentecostal family. I’d never seen her wear pants to school – always a long dress or a long skirt. I asked her one day why she never wore pants to school, and she said, “It’s against my religion for girls to wear pants,” and we went on with our day.
Notice what was missing in that conversation. She didn’t add “And you’re sinning by wearing pants,” or “And I can’t be your friend if you keep wearing pants,” or “And it should be illegal for girls to wear pants.” She simply said it was against her religion; she didn’t demand that it be against mine.
My classmate told me straight-up that it was against her religion to do something that I was doing. More power to her; she had the right to believe what she believed and to act, in her own life, according to that belief. She stopped short of telling me that it was wrong for me to wear pants, though, because she – a child, mind you – had the definition of freedom of religion correct. She had learned that it wasn’t her place at school to tell me that I had to live by her religion’s rules for below-the-waist attire; it was legal for girls to wear pants, it was cool by the dress code at our school, and it wasn’t against my beliefs to do so. Now, she might have thought I was a bad person, a heathen, a sinner or whatnot because I wore pants – but because the space she and I shared was public, she kept such hypothetical opinions about the condition of my soul to herself.
Today, there is a bill up for consideration in my home state (and similar bills in various stages in other states) that would give business owners the right to turn people away by claiming freedom of religious expression. The Missouri bill doesn’t mention gay people explicitly, as my more conservative friends are extremely fond of pointing out, but it’s generally accepted to be aimed at the LGBT population: Social conservatives, generally Christian ones, are hoping to make it explicitly legal for a business owner to turn gay people away because being gay is against the owner’s religion. (Never mind that sexual orientation, who you’re attracted to, is not a choice; while true, that’s not the point here.)
To me, this sort of legislation doesn’t ensure religious freedom; it flies in the face of it, every bit as much as it would have been an insult to my religious freedom back in the day for my classmate to demand that she not have to go to school with a girl who wore pants (or, indeed, an insult to hers if I’d demanded that she be made to wear pants or change schools).
Let me be clear: A house of worship, a religious publishing house, a business or organization formed specifically for the practice and promotion of a religion – these are not the sorts of businesses I’m talking about. I’m talking about businesses that sell goods or provide services, that charge money (or, in the case of social service agencies like the one where I work, are funded by governmental entities) in exchange for what they do, and that don’t require their employees to sign a statement of religious belief or otherwise prove what religion they are in order to get hired. In short, public businesses. To me, a public business saying to a customer, “Be straight or get out because I’m a Christian and being gay is bad,” is as ridiculous as it would’ve been for my classmate to say to me, “Wear a skirt or leave school because I’m Pentecostal and wearing pants is bad.”
The other thing about public businesses getting to turn customers away because of the owner’s religion: It’s an affront to something that the supporters of these sorts of bills claim to be championing… choice. These bills are saying that some customers should have fewer choices than others, and that’s wrong.
Now, to end this on an appropriately silly note, here is the song that gets in my head when I type the word “pants” as often as I have in this blog.