Complications of Conscience

It’s not even a week since the Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage has the same legal standing as marriage between people of different sexes, and something is dawning on people, some for the first time, that I’ve understood since I started taking religion and spirituality seriously.

Conscience is a complicated thing.  And the First Amendment right to “free exercise of religion” does nothing to change that.  Except, possibly, to make it a more complicated thing. And the “free exercise of religion” does not come without cost.

It seems to me a particularly good time, as we barrel into the celebrations for Independence Day, to give some gentle musings on the nuances of the freedoms on which the United States was founded–and that “free exercise of religion” was in its day an anomaly in human history.  We take that for granted, and yet, it’s only a few hundred years old.

As I said yesterday, I think private businesses who don’t want any part of weddings in which two men or two women make a legal, moral, and spiritual commitment to one another, intending it to be for life, should not have to do so. (I also think it’s exceptionally rude for the couples to force the issue–yes, it’s “principle”, but do you really want to mar a day that should be happy and beautiful with an ugly scene with your caterer?)  I think that such businesses should make it known, in writingand clearly displayed in their places of commerce, that they do not wish to do so.  If it hurts them financially beyond not just doing such weddings, so be it.   If people take their non-wedding business elsewhere as well, and tell their friends that Flakycake Bakery wouldn’t do their wedding,  and those friends choose not to take their business to Flakycake Bakery (even for a daughter’s “traditional” wedding), that is a cost of conscience which the owners of Flakycake Bakery must be willing to pay.

You have the right to “free exercise” of religion, and not to have your stand mixer sullied by making a cake for people who may expend the calories contained therein in ways you find objectionable.  You don’t have the right to silence them about why they chose CreamyDreams Confectioners to provide their nuptial dessert over Flakycake Bakery.  You don’t have the right to complain if their friends and relatives shift all their baked goods needs over to CreamyDreams.

It’s questionable whether you have the right to act bitchy on “religious grounds” about it, either.  There is no legal rubric of which I’m aware that either protects some people from receiving bitchiness, or allows others to emit bitchiness.  So, if someone walks into a shop expecting to transact business, and only after they’ve sat down and begun to explain the nature of the event for which they’d like to purchase goods or services, that “We Don’t Serve Your Kind” (or at least, not for what you were hoping would be the Happiest Day of Your Life), there has been bitchiness transmitted, and bitchiness received.  The receiver is actually in the power-down position here, because the transmitter stands on Free Exercise of the right to condemn someone else to Hell because the receiver (who wanted to give the transmitter money, remember?) has a lifestyle which the transmitter finds objectionable.

I have no real empirical evidence, but bitchiness, in my experience, hasn’t much improved the world.  A simple sign stating you don’t want to do business with certain people would perhaps reduce the bitchiness.  Maybe not eliminate it, but might reduce it.  Of course, if your conscience demands that you righteously condemn all who might violate your particular beliefs, skip the sign.  Any loss of business for treating prospective clients badly is just a cost of conscience you’ll have to live with.

It gets tricker when it isn’t private business owners who object to same-sex marriages (soon, I hope, simply to be called marriages), but public employees.  There’s been a bit of questioning how to deal with this when judges, county clerks, and other civil servants must make decisions where their own beliefs are in conflict with the laws they must uphold.

I am in far more sympathy with such public employees than I am with private business owners.  But I’m still not equally sympathetic to all of them.  A Los Angeles Times article which appeared yesterday indicates some of the responses municipal workers are figuring out when their own religious (usually conservative Christian) beliefs are in conflict with the new ruling.  I think the worst is an Alabama judge who is just pulling out of the marriage “business” altogether so he does not have to deal with marriages of which he does not approve.  The best, I thought was Hood County (Texas) Clerk Katie Lang, who said she would not herself issue “same sex marriage licenses” (which, again, I would hope that when the “correct forms” are delivered to her office, are just “marriage licenses”).  However, she would make sure that someone in her office was available to do so.

The former is heavy-handed, simplistic, all-or-nothing, and frankly, an end-run around the Supreme Court ruling.  And childish:  if I have to license marriages I don’t approve of, I just won’t license any marriages at all. It’s a temper tantrum, and if we’re smart, we’ll just let him hold his breath until he passes out, and put him to bed with his teddy bear and blankie until he can be a good boy.

Ms. Lang’s is more nuanced:  I can’t approve this because of my beliefs.  My beliefs are in conflict with a Supreme Court ruling, and as a public servant, I am sworn to uphold the law of the land.  How do I fulfill my oath as a public servant, and obey what I believe is God’s law?  It starts with a facts, recognizes a conflict, and asks the question of how that conflict can be reconciled with minimum harm to all concerned parties.

Conscience, in grown up people at least, is complicated.  It’s tested by how we respond to situations where two or more goods are in conflict. Ethical reasoning is rarely about absolute rights and wrongs, but about making decisions in situations where harms and benefits are hard to distinguish.  Ethics, I hate to tell people (well, no, I love to tell people), is almost always an exercise in situational decision making.

Ethics isn’t about cut and dried rule-following.  It’s complicated.  It’s messy.  It’s almost always not entirely satisfactory for any of the parties involved.

But it’s about how we manage to live with each other.  And how we manage to live with ourselves.

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