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FIRST-PERSON: A current American allegory

“PLEASANTVILLE” (BP) — Governor Brumble stands nervously at the press conference podium at the governor’s mansion in Pleasantville, the capitol of Sunnyvale. “I want to welcome everyone here tonight,” she begins, “because our state is always welcoming.

“Welcome citizens and non-citizens. Welcome new business and old business. If someone says, ‘Thank you,’ in Sunnyvale, we always say, ‘You’re welcome.’ That’s just who we are. There is no higher priority in our state than making people feel welcome.”

“Is that a higher priority than the First Amendment?” a reporter interrupts.

“You’re welcome to ask that,” Gov. Brumble replies. “Of course, the First Amendment is important, too. We always protect religious freedom and all that stuff. But today the issue is welcoming businesses to Sunnyvale.

“And so we want to give a ‘shout out’ and a special welcome to the WWF and the Super Brawl,” the governor gushes.
“Did they really threaten to refuse to do business here,” the reporter asks, “if you signed the ‘right to refuse to do business for religious reasons’ law?”
“Well, now, the WWF has every right to refuse to do business with folks they disagree with. They are welcome to do that,” Governor Brumble notes. “But we want to assure them that they don’t need to, because we are changing our convictions to match their convictions to make them feel welcome here in Sunnyvale.”

The governor adds, “We are not going to sign that silly law that allows Sunnyvale citizens to refuse to do business with people they disagree with, based on some religious conscience — whatever that means.”

“But shouldn’t your citizens have the same rights of conscience that WWF has?” the reporter asks.
“No, no, that’s the point I want to make today. We want to assure the WWF that they are welcome. Everyone is welcome.”

“Everyone? Even people who supported the new law?” the reporter continues.
“Well, almost everyone,” Gov. Brumble stumbles. “Unless you are one of — them.” And with embarrassment, she points a nervous finger toward an anteroom that is cordoned off for the elected lawmakers who sponsored the bill.

Pleasantville’s Mayor Sludgepump steps beside the governor and says: “Let me be plain. We don’t welcome extremists here, you know, those whackos who actually think their religious beliefs have anything to do with their marketplace decisions. If they can’t get with the program, we pleasantly say: ‘Get outta town. There’s no place for the likes of you in Sunnyvale.'”

“But what about their rights of conscience?” the reporter persists. “If it’s a good thing for the WWF to act on corporate conscience, why is it a bad thing to allow mom-and-pop stores to do the same?”

“No comparison,” Sludgepump scolds. “Totally different. We’re talking the Super Brawl here. You’re ridiculous.”

“You’re welcome,” the reporter responds. “But the text of the bill I have in my hand says nothing about “right to refuse service” or “to discriminate against gays.” It simply amends our state law to align it with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. It protects the right to assert religious conscience as a defense in a lawsuit that invokes state law, and it applies to individual and corporate persons. What’s wrong with allowing folks to assert this defense of conscience and let a judge decide?”

“Conscience-shmonscience,” Sludgepump thinks to himself. “Next thing, the bleeding-heart reporter will be worried about forcing a kosher deli to serve at a Nazi rally. Or forcing an African American photographer to video a Ku Klux Klan rally.”

“Well, I think you may be right that the bill merely follows the federal law,” the Governor Brumble bumbles, “and, as you say, the words ‘refuse to serve’ are not in the bill, but I hear there are dangerous, broad, general terms in the bill that might be stretched by the courts to cause unintended consequences. My advisers say the bill is just too broad and general to be safe.”

The reporter presses by quoting the First Amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.'” The first 16 words in the Bill of Rights, the reporter notes, are “broad, general words designed to broadly protect rights of conscience.”

“Whatever,” Governor Brumble of Sunnyvale mumbles.
Mike Whitehead is an attorney in Kansas City, Mo., who has fictional friends in Sunnyvale. Used by permission. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Mike Whitehead