Last week, the Arizona Legislature passed a bill that would allow owners to refuse service to customers if their refusal is sincerely motivated by religious concerns. Religious liberty is broadly defined to include beliefs and practices and protections apply not just to churches but to individuals, secular organizations, and businesses. At issue is the problem of cooperation with evil, and here Catholic moral theology can be helpful.

The language of the bill is neutral but it, like efforts in nine other states, was crafted by conservative groups in response to growing worries about same sex marriage and it is generating controversy among Christians. Supporters often cite a New Mexico case involving a photographer who refused to document the commitment ceremony of a lesbian couple because “she did not want to tell the stories of same sex weddings.” Although the photographer is staking her claim on freedom of speech rather than freedom of religion, the fact that, so far, she lost in court has conservatives worried. The Washington Post reported that, “In ruling against Huguenin’s case, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Bosson wrote that while Huguenin and her husband are ‘free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish,’ the public accommodation of differing beliefs is ‘the price of citizenship.'” Governor Jan Brewer must decide this week whether to prioritize the beliefs of citizens who feel called to non-participation in actions they understand to be immoral or the rights of gays and lesbians to equal treatment.

In an article about the New Mexico case, Adam Liptak quoted a justice concurring with the majority opinion:

“The Huguenins are not trying to prohibit anyone from marrying,” he wrote. “They only want to be left alone to conduct their photography business in a manner consistent with their moral convictions.” Instead, they “are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives.”

“Though the rule of law requires it,” Justice Bosson wrote, “the result is sobering.”

Although both the Arizona and New Mexico cases raise important questions about how to balance conflicting rights, they may not be as troubling as they first appear. In the manuals of Catholic Moral Theology that dominated the field in the 19th and 20th centuries, questions of potential cooperation with evil in the workplace were frequently treated. On this blog, we’ve applied these concepts to issues of eating factory farmed meat and voting (here and here). I have suggested elsewhere that moral cooperation can be extended to social issues, as long as its limits are understood.

But the situations for which the Arizona bill was crafted are actually much closer to the situations that concerned the manualists (e.g., May a nurse hand instruments for an “illicit procedure” to a doctor? May a servant deliver a letter to a master’s lover? May a taxi driver take a customer to a brothel? May a printer or ink seller provide services for publishers of illicit literature?).

In each of these cases, the evil is much more “proximate” and “necessary” than it is when one eats factory farmed meat or votes for a pro-choice candidate, and that makes it more difficult to excuse. However, in most cases, the manualists did excuse cooperation, as long as the cooperator did not share the evil doer’s intentions and, if possible, made his or her objections known. The assumption was that, in the workplace, it was nearly impossible to avoid all cooperation with evil, and thus some toleration was necessary.

Contemporary discussions of cooperation move in two directions. Liberal theologians tend to emphasize the pluralistic nature of society and argue for tolerance of opposing views (e.g., in alliances between hospitals or medical groups and in voting). The U.S.C.C.B. stresses Catholic responsibility for shaping the world we live in, and calls for “prophetic witness” in the face of grave evil, while allowing that sometimes voters face difficult choices.

The wisdom of the tradition is its recognition of the tension inherent in being a Christian in the world. Consciousness of potential to cooperate with evil is a good thing. In general, we need to think more about it, not less. We should encourage florists and photographers to think about all of the ways in which they, by action or inaction, may be complicit (e.g., Do they pay their workers a just wage? Do they charge just prices? Are they critical of the wedding industry?). Academic theologians need to ask the same kinds of questions (e.g., Are we just to our students? Do our institutions truly act for the common good or do they primarily serve the wealthy?).

But, as others have suggested, it is impossible to confirm the morality of every person for whom we provide services. Singling out gay and lesbian couples as especially evil seems unwarranted. Just like the ink seller and the printer, we all have to participate in a society which will involve us in situations we would not choose. While prophetic witness may occasionally be called for in the face of grave evil, broad allowances for “religious liberty” that includes so many varying levels of cooperation are misguided.

Justice Bossom rightly calls the reality of compromise “sobering.” But given all of evil we tolerate every day, focusing so narrowly same sex couples just doesn’t make sense. In an article at The Jesuit Post, Jeremy Zipple tells of his experience after polling his fellow Jesuits about pressing problems:

Frankly, the whole thing had depressed me, and also left me feeling guilty at my ignorance. From the men I lived with, I heard anecdote after anecdote of personal and communal hardships, of Catholics navigating problems so much more pressing than those I faced, in parts of the world I’d struggle to locate on a map. What shook me again and again was how removed their concerns were from the ones I spend most of my time debating on Twitter and at the dinner table. There was not a single mention of contraception (except obliquely, in relation to the HIV/AIDS question) – nor women’s ordination, abortion, liturgical disputes, or religious liberty (a few mentions of all-out religious persecution though – of the death-threat variety.)

For people of faith, and everyone else, there is plenty of evil to be concerned about. We need not worry so much about the small stuff.