Many years ago I was planning a party at my home for a large crowd. I planned to serve sandwiches, so I called a local deli that had been recommended to me. I discussed the kinds of meat the deli offered, and ordered several pounds of pastrami and corned beef and turkey.
“What about ham?” I asked.
“No ham. We’re kosher,” the proprietor responded.
I hadn’t realized the deli was kosher, but I could do without ham, and I added another pound of pastrami to my order. “And I’d like a cheese platter also,” I said.
“We don’t serve cheese with meat.” Now the proprietor’s tone was curt.
I was embarrassed. I knew that keeping kosher meant keeping meat and milk products separate—”thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” being one of the dietary commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But I had forgotten. I knew the deli offered both meats and cheeses for sale, but apparently they did not sell them together.
I was a member of the public placing an order with this deli. But it never once occurred to me to insist that I be sold both meat and cheese in violation of the proprietor’s religious beliefs. In fact, I felt I had been insensitive to his desire to operate his business in accordance with his religion. It was my faux pas, not his, I thought, though I did think he could have been a little more gentle in his response to me.
If I did not get indignant at my desire for cheese being refused, why do homosexual couples think that the owner of a bakery who believes gay marriage is not acceptable must sell them a wedding cake?
And why do people wanting birth control medications or devices think that a pharmacist must sell such goods when the pharmacist believes birth control is immoral?
Should I have insisted on getting my cheese at the same place as my meat? I don’t think so. Or canceled my meat order because I couldn’t get the cheese? That was my perogative, but it wasn’t worth bothering. There were plenty of other places to get my cheese.
I recognize that our nation’s history is full of examples of people being refused service because of their race, their gender, their national origin, their religion. I believe that in most of those situations, the business owners were wrong.
But let us also recognize that our nation was founded by people seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit. Religious freedom is one of our bedrock principles.
In most situations, we should permit business owners to set their own terms for what they will and will not offer for sale and when they will sell certain products. We should accommodate people’s attempts to make their livelihood in a manner that is consistent with their consciences. In a society as pluralistic as ours, there should be room to accommodate our differences.
Why can’t we just give each other some space to live and let live?