Symbolic defeat for a Christian business in Maryland

After spending more than a week on the road, I returned home -- as always -- to find a large stack of ink-stained dead tree pulp that needed to be sorted a read. I refer, of course, to all the back issues of the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

As you would expect, The Baltimore Sun folks are in full-tilt party mode with the advent of same-sex marriage in this very blue, very liberal Catholic state. Each and every one of these one-sided stories was precisely what one would expect, in this age of social-issues advocacy journalism in the mainstream press.

There was, however, one interesting page-one piece that sounded a slightly somber note. More on that in a minute.

Throughout the election season, leaders of the gay-rights movement argued, and thus The Sun religiously emphasized, that the legislation legalizing same-sex marriage would not require clergy and religious organizations to perform these rites. Of course, no one ever suggested that this was the issue in the first place. Opponents of the bill tried to debate its impact on the work of religious non-profit groups, such as schools and social-welfare ministries, as well as ordinary religious believers, of a traditional-doctrine bent, whose careers are linked to the marriage industry.

It was almost impossible to find local coverage that took any of those issues seriously -- DUH! -- what really mattered was that clergy and their religious flocks would not be forced to perform these rites. Nothing to see here in conscience-clause land, so move along.

This division between religious liberty in sanctuaries and religious liberty in public life is, meanwhile, the key to our nation's debates about the Health and Human Services mandate, the rights of military clergy, etc., etc. The high court has not addressed any of the big issues linked to this, but could soon -- including the undecided question of whether homosexuality is a condition that leads to special-protection status under civil rights laws.

Anyway, about that sobering A1 story about a highly symbolic local business, which is led by a traditional Christian:

An Annapolis company whose old-fashioned trolleys are iconic in the city's wedding scene has abandoned the nuptial industry rather than serve same-sex couples.

The owner of Discover Annapolis Tours said he decided to walk away from $50,000 in annual revenue instead of compromising his Christian convictions when same-sex marriages become legal in Maryland in less than a week. And he has urged prospective clients to lobby state lawmakers for a religious exemption for wedding vendors. While most wedding businesses across the country embraced the chance to serve same-sex couples, a small minority has struggled to balance religious beliefs against business interests.

Wedding vendors elsewhere who refused to accommodate same-sex couples have faced discrimination lawsuits -- and lost. Legal experts said Discover Annapolis Tours sidesteps legal trouble by avoiding all weddings.

"If they're providing services to the public, they can't discriminate who they provide their services to," said Glendora Hughes, general counsel for the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. The commission enforces public accommodation laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, sexual orientation and other characteristics.

And where, precisely, were those public-accommodation laws passed? Is that local, state or national law? This is crucial information that readers need to understand the legal debate that is raging around that issue. Plenty of cities, and some states, have added sexual orientation to these laws, but others have not.

Late in the story, The Sun team did offer some information about that crucial side of the issue, after talking to Frank Schubert, an opponent of laws that redefine marriage. A direct explanation of the state law shows up at the very end of this long report.

"This is exactly what happens," Schubert said, adding that religious liberty is "right in the cross hairs of this debate. ... The law doesn't protect people of faith. It simply doesn't."

Schubert pointed to a handful of other examples publicized in news reports across the country of wedding vendors sued for refusing to accommodate a same-sex ceremony: a pair of Vermont innkeepers, a New Jersey church group and a New Mexico wedding photographer.

A Christian conservative group financed an appeal in the case in New Mexico -- where same-sex marriages are not recognized but, as in Maryland, "public accommodation" laws prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. A lesbian couple tried to hire the photographer for their commitment ceremony, but the photographer's attorneys argued that artists have a constitutional right to refuse to endorse a message they do not support, according to the Religion News Service. Two New Mexico courts have sided with the lesbian couple who sued, and the state's highest court agreed to hear the case.

As of now, the homepage for Discover Annapolis Tours still shows a picture of a bride stepping off one of its vehicles, but that will soon change. As the story notes, the law will affect very few businesses -- simply because there are few religious believers whose convictions would require this act of conscience.

Meanwhile, long after the issue has been settled at the ballot box, The Sun team did offer some solid information representing the losers' point of view. The key, of course, is that the legislature may be asked to protect the rights of this tiny minority of religious traditionalists in the business world.

This leads to, well, people like the owners of Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A.

Owners can often face business decisions that conflict with their beliefs, according to a consultant who works with Christian businesses.

"When they're confronted with something that they feel is against the Bible and against God's words, our first advice is to think through the process to determine if it really is against your core values," said Ken Gosnell, president of the C12 Group of Central Maryland, a Christian business consulting group. ...

"Many businesses often quit selling a product or offering something, often because it no longer matches the core values of their company," Gosnell said. "If it doesn't match their core values, whatever it is, then they should quit doing it."

Christian businesses, he said, frequently choose to offer better employee benefits and to follow ethical business practices because of their beliefs, though sometimes it also means taking risks.

All in all, this is a pretty good report, with lots of voices representing the Maryland majority and a few representing the traditional Christian minority, symbolized by trolley operator Matt Grubbs.

The bottom line: This would have been a very timely hard-news story -- about a year ago. You know, back before the election.

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