Over the past decade we have seen a rise in websites and phone apps that are dedicated to helping us find love and connect with those we’re “best matched” with, based on a number of personality questions and so-called compatibility formulas. In more recent years, a number of e-dating websites have been created that cater to particular religious communities. Today, we have J-Date, a website for Jewish people, Muslima, a site helping connect Muslims to future spouses, and Christian Mingle, a site for followers of Jesus to connect with fellow Christians, to name just a few. These religiously-based dating sites have become an important tool that help individuals more easily match with other people who hold their same worldview and values, which can be a difficult task in general using more mainstream dating sites.
But recently, one religious dating site has faced legal backlash for its apparent “discrimination” against the LGBT+ community. Spark Networks, the owner of the popular religious dating websites J-Date and Christian Mingle, were recently sued focusing on a California anti-discrimination law which requires “business establishments to offer full and equal accommodations to people regardless of their sexual orientation.” The lawsuit focused on website Christian Mingle, which did not have options for LGBT+ people to join the site, requiring that men match with women and vice versa. Spark Networks agreed to pay the legal fees and $9,000 to each plaintiff and committed to adjust their services over the next two years to give “gays and lesbian singles a more tailored experience.”
As soon as the verdict was released, religious commentators from across the country began speaking out against the ruling. Kate Shellnut of Christianity Today wrote, “Advocates for traditional marriage consider the ChristianMingle lawsuit settlement an infringement on religious liberty, grouping the decision with broader societal and legal pressure on those opposed to gay marriage.” Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire wrote, “In the latest sign that the judiciary has gone completely off the rails, a judge has now forced the owners of ChristianMingle.com, Spark, to include same-sex matches on their website. Two gay men decided that there simply weren’t enough gay dating websites on the internet, and sued ChristianMingle.com…” The concern that almost all conservative commentators have brought up in light of this ruling is that the religious liberties of conservative Christians who believe in so-called “traditional marriage” are under attack. This, they say, is just another sign of the radical agenda of the LGBT+ left that seeks to undermine Christianity in the United States as we know it.
However, when one examines this situation more closely, a much less dramatic and nuanced perspective emerges. The lawsuit against ChristianMingle had little to do with gay men deciding that there “weren’t enough gay dating sites on the web.” It had little to do with the LGBT+ community seeking to shove our agendas down the throats of conservatives, as commentator Michael Brown suggested. Instead, what if this situation is truly about what the plaintiffs said it was about: equality. The United States constitution guarantees protections from discrimination as a fundamental right of every person living in the United States of America. Furthermore, California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act clearly states that “business establishments” must have “full and equal accommodations” for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation. Enshrined in these same civil rights laws are protections for religious institutions from ever being forced into silence or to be prevented from practicing their faith openly. These laws also protect the individuals right to practice and preach their religious convictions privately as well, without fear of government silencing or oppression. However, the judge in the ChristianMingle case ruled that based on the Unruh Civil Rights Act, Spark Networks decision to prevent LGBT+ people from using their service was a clear violation of basic civil rights. As a company offering services to the general public, they must at very least allow LGBT+ people to use their site, in the same way they must allow people of all races and yes, even religions to use their site.
When conservative religious leaders are outraged at simple ruling that require them to live by the same laws that protect them, a deeper problem is revealed. For far too long, religious leaders and institutions, particularly those of the conservative Christian variety, have held a deeply unconstitutional position of privilege and influence in our country. Their beliefs and worldview has been disproportionally honored by our politicians, who vowed to uphold and defend the constitution which clearly states that no law shall be created “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Yet, it is undeniable that the over the past century, the United States government has treated Christianity as the preferred religion, giving religious leaders unprecedented access to power and influence over the political process. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedoms, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” In other words, the basic civil rights of citizens supersede any and all religious beliefs and opinions. When one enters into the public sphere, civil rights become the chief and highest authority, and those civil rights demand that public businesses be extended to all people, regardless of race, religion, or sexuality.
If we begin to allow businesses to discriminate against sexual and gender minorities, then what is to stop them from being able to discriminate based on race, religion, political affiliation, or any other aspect of a person which we disagree with? Is that the society we want to live in? The world that we want to create? The scales of civil rights will either lean towards total protection from discrimination or the total embracing of discrimination- there is no middle ground. If we allow business owners to discriminate against the LGBT+ community, then they should be allowed to discriminate against any community, which sets our country back hundreds of years by undoing the vital work of the civil rights movement. If we demand that all public businesses respect and serve all people, regardless of sexuality, gender identity, race, or religion, we will move nearer to the vision of a truly just and equal society that our founding fathers dreamed of and that lay at the core of the Christian gospel.
In the words of President John F. Kennedy, speaking on the topic of discrimination: “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” This is the question conservative Christians and many other people of faith must continue to wrestle with. We must ask whether or not we believe that discrimination based on one religious communities beliefs be forced on to society or should the government protect society from any one religions ideologies in support of a set of inherent and unalienable human rights? If the former, then we must be okay living in a society where discrimination is acceptable, where shop owners place signs in their windows saying “No Gays” or “No Muslims” allowed. We must be okay with a society that is no longer a democracy, where all voices are welcomed, all people protected, and robust debate is encouraged. If this is where our society is heading, we can hardly be called a pluralistic or just society. This is the question at the heart of the ChristianMingle ruling, and only time will tell which way our country chooses to go. May we choose wisely.