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Southern Baptist Minister: Religious Liberty Law Permits Denial Of Some Services


Let's ask what Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act really means.


GOVERNOR MIKE PENCE: Clearly there's been misunderstanding and confusion and mischaracterization of this law.

INSKEEP: Gov. Mike Pence admits his statements added to the confusion. The governor said the law does not permit discrimination. But some supporters of the law said it would defend people refusing service to gays and lesbians who were getting married. And the governor would not answer either way. On Tuesday, Gov. Pence tried to clarify.


PENCE: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana does not give anyone the right to deny services to anyone in this state.

INSKEEP: So why did some people want this law, which has been fiercely criticized across the country? We asked one of the measure's supporters. Tim Overton is the pastor of a small Baptist church in Muncie, Ind. People call him Pastor Tim, and he graciously took our questions. He testified in favor of the religious freedom legislation and he gave us several reasons why, including this...

PASTOR TIM OVERTON: I, as a pastor, provide a service to my parishioners, but also to the community at large in officiating weddings. I receive compensation for these services as well as the state issues a marriage license after I officiate a wedding. So if I say no to a same-sex couple or there are issues of divorce in someone's past that I will not do the wedding, some people are going to say that's discrimination. But I think most Americans would agree that a pastor like myself should not be compelled by the government to use my speech to support someone else's perspective. And I think that has parallels to the cake-maker. The cake-maker is using his or her artistic ability to make a cake, and that cake communicates something. I think that cake is speech, and it says we celebrate this union. And to force someone who doesn't believe that same-sex marriage is correct in the eyes of God, I just don't think they should be forced or compelled by government to use their speech to support someone else's perspective.

INSKEEP: I think you're helping us with some confusion here because Gov. Mike Pence has repeatedly insisted that this law does not discriminate, even as supporters of the law have said it would allow people to refuse certain services, like providing flowers for a wedding. It sounds like part of the confusion here is just a question of definition of terms. You believe that if someone refused services at a wedding for religious reasons, that just doesn't - it just isn't defined as discrimination as you see it.

OVERTON: Right. It's exercise of religion. And we're going to have to find a healthy compromise as gay rights is on the ascendancy. And as that happens, we're going to find a way to protect religious liberty. I - and this is me speaking for myself - but I would like the line to be drawn in services that involve speech, given special consideration by the court. I don't think any referendum anywhere - and there's no case law to back it up - is going to say - someone can say I'm not going to give you a hotel room or I'm not going to give you a hamburger or gasoline or groceries; that's outside the bounds of what even religious people would want. But we are saying that in - you know, all of life for the Christian is about glorifying God. We are worshiping God in the workplace. And so to ask a religious person who happens to own a business to do something that is against their conscience, I just don't think that squares with the American tradition of freedom of religion.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting - having read the Indiana legislation, though, I don't actually, as a layman, see that distinction about services involving speech in there. It just talks about services provided by businesses who may have a religious objection can require the government to be held to a rather high standard. It doesn't seem to have that distinction that you describe.

OVERTON: Well, I think that distinction will be played out in the courts. I mean, all the legislature can do is pass principles to guide the courts. These individual circumstances are very complicated and are very nuanced. And they're going to be decided in the courts. And so I think it's wise for the legislature of a state or the nation, as we have already done, to say if government's going to interfere in religious liberty, they need to have a very good reason to do that. They need to meet the compelling interest test. And then even if they meet it, they need to do it the least restrictive means necessary.

INSKEEP: So Gov. Pence said this law is not meant to allow anyone to deny services to anyone. You're helping us understand that what he actually means is this law does not allow anyone to deny services in most cases. But there is a limited subset of cases where you believe that it is appropriate to deny services because free speech and freedom of religion are involved.

OVERTON: Well, I don't know the mind of Mike Pence. I can't tell you exactly what he means. But I...

INSKEEP: But that's how you read the law.

OVERTON: Well, here's the question though - when I, as a Baptist pastor who believes the Bible, tell a same-sex couple I will not do your wedding, am I discriminating? What do we mean by discrimination?

INSKEEP: Go right on. Help me answer that question.

OVERTON: Well, as I've said before, I think services that involve speech need to be given special consideration by the courts. But I do not believe the government should compel one citizen to speak on behalf of another's perspective that they fundamentally disagree with at a religious level and in a religious conscience.

INSKEEP: I've got one other question, and it involves a story from the time of desegregation of the United States - racial desegregation. And I don't mean to suggest here that these two situations are exactly the same, but they were two situations of great social change. And it involves the great sportscaster Red Barber, who was broadcasting on the radio at the time and was quite upset at first at the desegregation of baseball, Jackie Robinson coming to play in the major leagues. He said once that he thought about resigning, but then realized that his job was simply to report what was happening on the field. I wonder if there are people who are uncomfortable as a matter of conscience with gay marriage who might, with reason, take that position - that their job is simply to sell flowers, that their job is to take photographs, that their job is not to judge either way, that none of us are put on Earth to judge, actually, that their job is not to judge the people in front of them necessarily.

OVERTON: Well, I think you're going to have a broad spectrum of different reactions to our changing society. I can speak for myself. As a Baptist pastor who believes the Bible, I believe God made us male and female. And embracing God's will is embracing our gender and acting accordingly. And I don't think people like myself are going to abandon the biblical view of gender and God's plan for the family. And I would hope that society would make allowances for traditional Christian theology and belief and allow us to practice our faiths in the workplace and in public as well as our houses of worship.

INSKEEP: Pastor Tim Overton of Muncie, Ind. Thanks very much.

OVERTON: Well, thank you.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly refer to Tim Overton as a Baptist pastor. In fact, he is a Southern Baptist minister.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 1, 2015 at 10:00 PM MDT
In this story, as in a previous headline and Web introduction, we incorrectly refer to Tim Overton as a Baptist pastor. In fact, he is a Southern Baptist minister.