The Effect of Legalized Same-Sex Marriage on the Faithful, Part 3: Small-Business Owners

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The Effect of Legalized Same-Sex Marriage on the Faithful, Part 3: Small-Business Owners

In Parts 1 and 2 of the series, we looked at how Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, affects churches, individuals, and faith-based nonprofits. Although in the short term these groups are still protected, the decision opens the door for serious challenges to religious liberty, some of which we are already seeing at the state level.

This final article in the series will look at the way same-sex marriage legalization has impacted and will impact people of faith who own small businesses. This group has already been under enormous pressure, particularly in the states that legalized same-sex marriage prior to the Supreme Court decision. Since businesses are regulated largely at the state level, most of the discussion will focus on state-based problems.

The Background Stories

Even before Obergefell, many states had moved ahead with legalizing same-sex marriage or had some type of same-sex partnership recognition. One of the earliest states was New Mexico. The argument is normally raised that legalizing same-sex marriage simply gives equal rights to same-sex couples without harming others who already have the freedom to marry. On its face this argument may have some truth. However, in New Mexico a Christian photographer found out the hard way how this meme has a downside.

Elaine Huguenin, a wedding photographer who owns her own small business, was asked back in 2006 to shoot a same-sex commitment ceremony. Because of her personal religious convictions she found the request contrary to her deeply held beliefs and so politely declined. The lesbian couple who had originally asked her found another photographer at a cheaper price, yet filed a complaint with the state human rights commission. The case went all the way to the state supreme court, and even the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to weigh in, though it declined to do so.

In the end, the court ruled against Elaine. One of the state justices wrote in her case that “the sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do . . . it is the price of citizenship.” The justice added that Elaine and her husband, who run the business, are “now are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives.”

Unfortunately Elaine’s story is not an anomaly. The state of Washington has also joined in going after small business owners who wish to exercise their beliefs. Barronelle Stutzman is a grandmother who owns a floral shop called “Arlene’s Flowers.” She regularly provided floral services to a gay couple for twelve years. However, back in 2013 when they asked her to do the flower arrangements for their same-sex wedding, she politely declined, explaining she couldn’t participate in the same-sex wedding “because of my relationship with Jesus.”

When the state attorney general heard what was going on, he joined the gay couple in suing her. Barronelle lost at the lower court level, but thankfully the state supreme court has agreed to hear her case. Hopefully they will reverse the decision to avoid setting a precedent that unpopular religious beliefs should be punished with economic sanctions.

A final example from the small business category is the story of Betty and Richard Odgaard. Betty and Richard are a small-town Mennonite couple who opened an art gallery named Görtz Haus in an old abandoned church and added a wedding chapel to provide supplemental income. Both Betty and Richard would plan and execute the wedding ceremony with couples who wished to be married in the old church, which was full of religious symbols the Odgaards held dear.

After the Odgaards informed a gay couple that their Mennonite beliefs forbid them from participating in a same-sex wedding, a complaint was filed with the state civil rights commission. After being forced to settle, the Odgaards had no choice but to stop hosting weddings. Without the income from the weddings, the Odgaards were forced to also shut down the gallery and temporarily were put out of business.

However, they were saved when their own church needed a building to use. Therefore Görtz Haus reincorporated as a church, and today it enjoys the religious protections that small businesses are denied. As I explained in Part 1, churches get special protections in the law.

Obergefell and Its Aftermath

As we can see, the legalization of same-sex marriage appears to change both cultural and legal patterns against those who hold to contrary beliefs. While the Obergefell decision doesn’t say much about the impact on small business, the majority opinion’s statements about people of faith being free to “advocate” and “teach” their beliefs rather than exercise them (as I discussed in Part 1) doesn’t bode well for small business owners. Indeed, when Justice Thomas in dissent describes how those with traditional beliefs will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such, he could possibly have been speaking about people like Elaine Huguenin, Barronelle Stutzman, and Betty and Richard Odgaard.

As a result of the Supreme Court decision, a few states, such as Mississippi, have worked to pass laws protecting their state’s small businesses. While those protesting religious liberty have argued that these laws are about opposition to gay people, that is not their intention and normally not even their effect. To be clear, these business owners are not denying a service because they have animus against gay people or are biased on the basis of the couple’s identity. No, what these business owners of faith believe is that there are certain ceremonies which are so sacred that acting in a way different than their convictions would be a violation of their own faith. These owners see a difference between the gay couple as people created in the image of God and their wedding ceremony, which goes against God’s design for marriage as established in Eden.

Unfortunately most other bills that have attempted to protect religious liberty have been shot down immediately with false accusations. Such actions don’t create a bright future for people of faith who own small businesses.

As people of faith who value protection for all, including our friends in the business world who are putting their God-given talents to creative use, we should work to try and protect people of faith. The actions of judges, state attorneys general, and others is a worrisome trend, but this nation was founded not just upon the principles of free enterprise but also upon the principles of free exercise of faith.

As we conclude this look at the effects of Obergefell, people of faith—whether in churches, nonprofits, or businesses—are struggling to live in the world and yet abide by their consciences to not be of it. Government officials are not making this task an easy one, and yet as people of faith we can take comfort in the words of Christ: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV).

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About the author

Jason Miller

Jason Miller is a law school graduate from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he focused on law and public policy. He has a passion for religious liberty and faith-based community service. In the little free time he has, Jason enjoys volunteering in local churches and young adult organizations, participating in politics, and attending Supreme Court oral arguments.