The slippery slope of reasoning

I am not a fan of slippery slope arguments. People tend to make them when dealing with sensitive topics. If the other side cannot be convinced by a basic argument, the speaker turns to the slippery slope argument. This play on extremes is meant to show the flaws in the other side’s position. Typically, however, it only shows how invested the speaker is in a given issue.

Yet sometimes there is a validity to the argument. Case in point: Indiana’s new religious freedom law. Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law early last week. The move prompted immediate outrage over the impression that the law allows people to discriminate against gay people under the guise of protecting religious rights. If someone belongs to a religion that opposes gay marriage and refuses to serve a gay couple, say by baking a wedding cake, the law protects the religious person from being sued.

That was not, however, how the law was taken. Both sides saw it is as a wholesale allowance of general discrimination. Many on the right would deny that, claiming that businesses could not discriminate against individual gay people. Yet that is not how some supporting the law responded. 

Within hours of the law passing, a business owner took to the radio to state he had already denied services to gay people and supported the law. Several days later, another business owner admitted in an interview that she would not cater gay weddings. The pizzeria received scores of negative responses and eventually closed its doors. A GoFundme campaign was started on their behalf. It raised nearly $900,000 before closing.

Both of these responses show how quickly people took the law as a sign that they could discriminate. It also shows the slippery slope concern is valid. It appears that some religious people will use their beliefs as a excuse. As the caller to the radio show stated:

Well, I feel okay with it because it’s my place of business, I pay the rent, I’ve built it with all my money and my doing. It’s my place; I can do whatever I want with it. They can have their lifestyle and do their own thing in their own place or with people that want to be with them.

The question is where does this end? At what point does the argument about protecting one’s religious freedom become invalid? I ask because of another case making the rounds.

A lesbian couple having their first child sought the services of a pediatrician. They met the doctor before their daughter was born, and the doctor seemed fine with working with the family. However, six days after the baby was born, the doctor refused to see the couple. Her reason:

“The first thing Dr. Karam said was, ‘I’ll be your doctor, I’ll be seeing you today because Dr. Roi decided this morning that she prayed on it and she won’t be able to care for Bay,’ ” Jami told WJBK. “Dr. Karam told us she didn’t even come to the office that morning because she didn’t want to see us.”

Dr. Roi later wrote a letter to the couple explaining her position. The letter stated in part:

After much prayer following your prenatal, I felt that i would not be able to develop the personal patient-doctor relationships that I normally do with my patients. […] I felt that it was an exciting time for the two of you and I felt that if I came in and shared my decision it would take away much of the excitement. That was my mistake. I should not have made that assumption and I apologize for that.

Roi went on to write:

Please know that I believe God gives us free choice and I would never judge anyone based on what they do with that free choice.

That is a very common and sorry argument I see from religious people, so allow me to clarify it for them: if you decide you cannot serve someone because they do not follow your religion, you are judging them. You are making a decision about their character. The proper word for that is “judgement.” You do not get to weasel out of that because it makes you look bad.

Setting that aside, the question here is whether this should fall under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Is this allowed? Is this acceptable? Is this excusable? Yes, this is a slippery slope argument. However, these are also valid questions. At what point do we as a society say that you cannot use your religion as an excuse?

All that said, people who support gay rights should keep in mind that the law does not automatically result in positive rulings. There are plenty of cases in which the courts reject the religious defense. The existence of the law does not mean that discrimination is now legal. What it does mean is that some people want to pass laws that would essentially protect them against discrimination law suits.

I would hope that we would have progressed as a society to understand that religious freedom includes freedom from religion. I would hope that we would understand that one’s beliefs are not an excuse to favor or disfavor any group. I would hope that we would understand that given the size and diversity of our society we will encounter people who hold very different views than our own. We should know by now that it is morally wrong to refuse to provide others with the same services we want provided to us.

One need not agree with a ceremony to provide food, flowers, or music for it. One need not agree with a ceremony to take pictures of it or to provide a space for it. One need not be involved in the event on any substantive level. It is merely the service that is being requested, the same one that you would provide those you like, not your support.

That is the point we should be looking at, not whether someone’s ancient book says this about gay people or whether popular sentiment says that about religious people. We do not want to get to a point where we have a doctor refusing to help a child because of who her parents love.

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8 thoughts on “The slippery slope of reasoning

  1. The thing that annoys me the most is those who are saying “Well, the gays (or the Pagans, or the Muslims, or the atheists, etc) can always just go someplace else.”
    This is true if you happen to live in a large city or well developed town, because if the guy on Main Street won’t serve you there’s 5 other stores within a rock’s throw that will be more than happy to take your money for their services.

    But what of those “unwanteds” who live in the middle of Bumblefuck Nowhere, USA, where it’s a small town with barely paved roads, a single grocery store, one doctor…and they all have decided that providing you with their services/products would mean they support a “heathen” or “sinfilled” lifestyle? It’s all well and good to tell Tom and Joe Smith to simply Google a caterer, florist, baker who will appreciate them as customers for their wedding. But if the very stores and restaurants they’d use in their *everyday lives* refuse them, I could easily see entire families and couples needing to move just so they don’t have to drive 30 miles to have a nice dinner out or to buy a gallon of milk.

    If people want to be able to dictate exactly who their customer base is, then they should fill out the necessary paperwork to be considered a club or otherwise private organization. When you open your doors to the public, you open them to all the public. I’ve been asked to leave a store before, and had service refused to me based on my faith…I can’t imagine it being refused based on my sexual orientation.

  2. Since you recur to slippery slope arguments, these arguments go both ways. You are forced to do business about gay marriage. The government can force you to do any other kind of business you don’t want. What we have here is a power grab consisting of taking power from private citizens and giving it to the government. You are cheering now, but when the government is intruding your freedom more and more in ways you don’t like, you won’t be happy.

    “If people want to be able to dictate exactly who their customer base is,”

    It is called “freedom of association”. It has always been understood that I can refuse any kind of business because of any reason (not only religious or ideological reason, maybe you were mean with me in the past and don’t want anything to do with you). So what?

    This way a gay baker cannot be forced to bake a cake with the letters “Sodomites are sick people”. Or even the milder “Marriage is between a man and a woman (with some Bible verse attached)”. If it happens that the family is Christian, lives in a small village, the only baker is gay and the family has to go elsewhere, tough luck. Life is not fair, not for gays, not for any other group. This does not mean that they can force their will into anybody else so they don’t have any inconvenience.

    From the founding of the United States of America on, “freedom of association” was a given, as in any other Western countries. This was true even before USA existed but the Enlightenment gave it a philosophical foundation. This was the base of capitalism and economic freedom…until now.

    Only totalitarian states (such the extinct USSR) forced you to do business even if you don’t want. American is becoming a totalitarian state before our noses. Now you support it because you support gay people. Tomorrow it will be any other cause you don’t want. Keep on cheering your own enslavement. You are the useful fools.

  3. What a petty, childish law this is. Since when is it violating someones beliefs for them to sell a pizza to someone? Forcing them into a gay marriage would be violating their beliefs. If you don’t want to deal with people who are different, America isn’t the country for you.

  4. You are forced to do business about gay marriage. The government can force you to do any other kind of business you don’t want.

    Yet they are only being asked to do the same business they already do.

    It is called “freedom of association”. It has always been understood that I can refuse any kind of business because of any reason (not only religious or ideological reason, maybe you were mean with me in the past and don’t want anything to do with you). So what?

    Under current law, you may not do this. You may not simply discriminate against people because you do not like their group.

    This way a gay baker cannot be forced to bake a cake with the letters “Sodomites are sick people”. Or even the milder “Marriage is between a man and a woman (with some Bible verse attached)”.

    That is a different situation. The proper comparison would be a Christian couple simply asking a gay baker to bake them a cake. There is no message, no religious angle. It is simply the same kind of cake the baker would otherwise make. In that instance, one lacks the reason to refuse to provide the service.

  5. This is awkward. TS, I’ve been reading your blog archives for a couple of weeks and I’m impressed by and agree with 90% of what you write. I was looking forward to another post about your core subject matter but instead it is Easter weekend and I’m sorry but I do have to take offense at the post.

    On the plus side- I totally agree with you about slippery slope arguments. In part because I do not believe in slippery slope social change. Human nature is to take it too far.

    I have been Catholic for three years, and I have supported gay marriage much longer than that. So I do not wish to give the impression that I think marriage equality is bad. I don’t. But I do think it is time for the movement to show restraint.

    Here are my thoughts as I read your post:

    1. In jumping from a discussion of the Indiana law to a putative law protecting a Doctor from an anti-discrimination suit, you bypass an important point. That wedding vendors are required as a function of their job to attend a ceremony that is religous in nature.

    It is an established principle that forcing someone to attend a religous ceremony can violate their religous freedom. The ceremony need not require the attendee to belong to a group, state a belief, or participate in any way. Just forcing someone to be there is enough to constitute a violation. My wife has an uncle who is a Jehovah’s Witness and does not attend family weddings or funerals for that reason.

    I think when we talk about gay weddings, there is an assumption that this would not be applicable because the ceremony may not be “religous”. Still, if we want gay marriage to be thought of as equal to traditional marriage, similar logic must apply. Attending is an indication of support and should not be in any way coerced.

    2. As I read the part of your post about Dr. Roi’s interpretation of “judging”, it occurs to me that there is absolutely no secular or legal requirement to refrain from forming opinions about other people’s decisions. “Judge not lest you be judged” is from the Bible, not the constitution.

    So ironically, telling her she is wrong to do so would be violating her religous freedom by forcing her to actually follow her own religion.

  6. Peter:

    That wedding vendors are required as a function of their job to attend a ceremony that is religous in nature.

    That assumes all weddings are religious in nature. They are not. It also assumes that all functions require a person to attend the wedding. They do not. A florist, for example, would deliver the flowers and set them up before the ceremony began. A caterer does not attend the wedding at all. He would attend the reception after the wedding. The same goes for the baker. Even then, they are not required to participate in anything. The baker can deliver the cake and leave. The caterer may have to stay to manage the food, but there is nothing that requires him to join the activities.

    Still, if we want gay marriage to be thought of as equal to traditional marriage, similar logic must apply.

    That assumes “traditional marriage” is religious in nature. It is not, unless you limit it to a particular time and place.

    As I read the part of your post about Dr. Roi’s interpretation of “judging”, it occurs to me that there is absolutely no secular or legal requirement to refrain from forming opinions about other people’s decisions.

    I never said there was. I merely corrected Roi’s assertion that she was not judging the couple. She clearly is.

    So ironically, telling her she is wrong to do so would be violating her religous freedom by forcing her to actually follow her own religion.

    I am confused by this statement. Are you saying it is wrong to hold the doctor to her own religious standards?

  7. I would imagine that most people don’t hear this very often; but you have changed my mind. I was totally against the forcing of businesses to provide services they may disagree with, but……I see it differently now. It was the doctor example that did it. Slippery slope or not, once you open the door for refusing to provide services, then you can’t close it.

    But there must be a provision for speech. If a wedding cake just says “Dan and Stan, happily ever after,” or something, then I see no issue with that, but if there is a message involved, there must be a way to refuse on legitimate grounds. Like putting the hashtag #killallmen on a cake for a lesbian wedding, even as a joke (this is not just hypothetical), or a swastika, should be able to be refused without repercussions.

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