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On Laws, Conscience, and Respect

Normally, I don’t touch politics or controversial subjects.

However, a current debate kind of affects our lives.

So between the Hobby Lobby case in the Supreme Court, Indiana’s Religious Freedom law, and the case of the bakery in Gresham that went out of business after their refusal to make a cake for a lesbian wedding, a few basic questions emerge. Particularly: can a business have a conscience? Can the owner’s conscience affect the work the business accepts or refuses, or the things it supports? What if there’s a conflict between one person’s wishes and the other’s beliefs?

Which brings us to a certain grass-seed warehouse and Rogue Ale.

Paul bought our warehouse from his dad who had taken over from his dad. Dozens of sons and nephews have worked there; countless tons of seed have been cleaned, bagged, and shipped.

Yes, it’s a business. It’s also a big part of the family’s lifestyle and history.

Some time ago Paul started taking on custom projects. He became certified to work with organic grains and feed. He has since cleaned oats, cracked corn for chickens, processed rice bran, and much more.

A few months ago, Paul told me he has a moral dilemma. Someone had called him from a company called “Rogue,” or something like that, wondering if he could process some barley. He said yes. The truckload of barley arrived.

Now Paul, not being an imbibing man, for personal and religious reasons, didn’t recognize the Rogue name for what it was, as many Oregonians including his wife would have, even though she doesn’t imbibe either, and he was disturbed to find out that they make beer, and this was the barley’s intended purpose.

What, he asked me, should he do? He could not in good conscience supply a company that made alcohol, but he had already told them he would do this load of barley.

I felt that the greater evil would be to not keep his word. He agreed. So he explained to the Rogue representative that he hadn’t been aware of their company and he was willing to process this load, but he had religious reasons for not wanting to do more after this.

Things could have turned one of several ways just then.

Rogue Ale would have had every legal right, at this point, to insist that we continue to offer them this service. They needed to have barley processed. We had the time, the machinery, the proximity, the workers, and the storage capacity. We had a business that served the public.

Our only reason for saying no was a religious preference.

They could have threatened, harassed, and made a public outcry. They could have given us a bad name in the grain-and-feed community. I’m not sure what the laws are in Oregon, but I suppose they could have pressed charges of discrimination and maybe even have sued and put us out of business. And really, would you have blamed them for being upset and taking legal action?

We would, I hope, have followed the New Testament teaching to suffer loss rather than retaliate or take legal action in return.

They also could have called us plenty of adjectives such as fanatical, behind-the-times, discriminatory, and narrow-minded.

And again, they would have had good reason to lob a few of those labels at us.

They didn’t do any of that.

Instead, they were unbelievably kind, understanding, and gracious.

They thanked us profusely for helping them out of a pinch with that first truckload, and they assured us that while they would love to continue to work with us, they had no desire to violate our conscience and they would take their barley elsewhere in the future.

They did not try to change our minds. Or our business, or beliefs, or behavior. We deeply appreciated their response, and in return we made no attempt to change their business and its purposes.

I had to wonder if the Rogue folks were raised by the same standards we were, especially that deeply ingrained conviction that you must always go to great lengths to honor people’s religious beliefs, even if it inconveniences you and maybe even costs you time and money, and even if your beliefs differ vastly from theirs. And even if you think their beliefs are wrong and you’d love to change them.

That’s why I wore a scarf and balto (long black robe) in the Middle East, so I wouldn’t be offensive to Muslims, and why I made sure the Seventh-Day Adventists had meatless options when they came for dinner, and why my Mom wore her Old Order shawl and bonnet to Amish funerals, and why my non-Mennonite sisters-in-law always wore long skirts at Mom and Dad’s house, and why Great-Aunt Ketty used chicken fat and not lard to make pies for the Jewish family in Portland, years ago, and why I’ve refrained from taking what could have been phenomenal pictures of Amish relatives, even though it pained me to let the opportunities pass, and why I am careful to be proper and respectful during Muslim or Catholic prayers and services even though they might make me uncomfortable.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this consideration as well, such as when my employer let me have Sundays off because we believe in keeping it holy, and he also let me wear my head covering even though it didn’t fit very well with the restaurant uniform, and when the P.E. teacher didn’t make me dance with the others. And then there’s the farmer who harvests on Sunday but waits until Monday to bring his seed in, and does not take his seed elsewhere, like he would have every right to. And the many in the past who were extra careful about movies and TV when our children were over because they didn’t want to be offensive. And the friends and family who didn’t invite us to their weddings because they knew we don’t believe in remarriage after divorce and thus spared us the awkwardness of not showing up to give our blessing. We discussed this, actually. We love and respect each other. We just don’t agree. They didn’t have to be as gracious as they were, and I’m grateful.

In all the debates about wedding cakes and insurance coverage and such, I can well understand people’s desire to have their wishes accommodated. And how it can feel hurtful and discriminatory and annoying if they’re refused.

What I can’t understand is that people would actually put their own wishes ahead of someone else’s practice of a deeply-held religious belief, in something that’s not a life-or-death matter.

But maybe that’s just me being all old-fashioned and Amish.

I also don’t understand the assumption that suing a business and bombarding them with messages that they’re hateful or bigoted or worse will actually make the owners change their minds. It shows a serious ignorance about what a religious belief is, where it comes from, how it works, and what it takes to change it.

People might cave in out of fear, but that’s not real change. If they change their minds because of economic loss or public backlash, then it wasn’t an actual religious belief to start with.

If Rogue Ale had really wanted us to change our views on alcohol, they couldn’t have chosen a better method than their kindness and graciousness.

And even if we never change our views, we will always think of them gratefully when we pass their big building on the way to the Marine Science Center in Newport.

They could have made things really hard for us. They chose not to.

Some people are bound to abuse a religious/conscience law, but in the long term, the potential dangers of denying people and businesses freedom of religion/conscience seem to me much greater and more alarming.

P.S. On Conscience and Respect
Just a few more thoughts--

While the "cake for a gay wedding" example is the #1 example that comes up (usually immediately, and with strong feelings), in the conscience/service question, I avoided addressing it specifically because I think this issue is bound to bite all of us in a lot of ways we haven't begun to think of.

I wanted us to think a little more creatively. None of us want our state or nation to make laws based on a single narrative.

Also, Christian people differ widely in how they'd handle the cake situation, from “don't make a cake” to “make it and bless them” to “make it for free so I'm not profiting financially” to "make two cakes like going the 2nd mile."

But a lot of the frustration that religious people feel is directed at the cake question because it’s such a graphic example of what could happen to any of us: a situation where we have two options—go against our principles or lose our business.

And we think surely, surely, we as a society could come up with other solutions.

Also—and somehow religious people of every sort just GET this and so many non-religious people do not—we can’t just instantly change what we believe and solve everything that way. Like this: "Oh DUH, your Facebook comment is so convincing—of COURSE discriminating of any kind is worse than supplying a brewery! How could I be so stupid?"

On the surface, as someone pointed out to me—discrimination is discrimination. We discriminated against Rogue Ale. We need to take the consequences if it happens again.

True enough.

So the only thing that will save us from another barley-processing situation is GRACE, the kind of grace that Rogue demonstrated, the grace that comes if the person ordering the barley (or the cake) chooses to be kind and understanding and accommodating instead of insistent and confrontational.

You can’t legislate grace. It has to be given voluntarily.

And as a religious business owner, you can’t demand it, either. You can only appeal and hope.

You can’t legislate that attitude, either.

And how do you legislate, “You can turn a customer away for religious reasons but only if it's a true conviction in your heart and you're not just being nasty?”

Because the fear is that if anyone can be turned away, for any reason, and we’re back to white-only lunch counters.

So while it would be nice to have a legal safeguard for a business like ours, the thing we really need is a social movement where people are willing to understand, give, sacrifice, respect, and cooperate.

And where wishes and impulses and feelings and convenience are mature enough to give grace and respect and honor to deep religious conviction and tradition.

Or, in short, where religious beliefs are allowed to trump hurt feelings, and we can all tell the difference.

Like I said, you can’t legislate that.

While a law to protect us would be really nice, what we can do now is begin in our own hearts and in our own churches, to respect those of a different opinion, and to refrain from eating meat if it damages the non-meat-eating brother’s conscience.

—Dorcas Smucker


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