In March 2013 florist Barronelle Stutzman gently explained to her long-term customer Rob Ingersoll why she couldn’t provide flowers for his homosexual wedding. It was not because Ingersoll was homosexual—she had been serving him for years. It was because her conscience could not allow her to support an event that violated her religious faith.

Both the customer and the State of Washington sued Stutzman. She was convicted and three years later the 72-year-old grandmother is still fighting in the courts for her freedom of conscience.

This story has been repeated too many times in the US and the UK. Bakers, photographers, reception centre owners, and civil celebrants are being prosecuted for their conscientious objection to supporting and supplying homosexual weddings.

And now the same thing is being proposed for Australia.

In a recent press release Tasmanian LGBT advocate Rodney Croome said, concerning proposed marriage redefinition:

“I’m deeply concerned about the proposal to allow unspecified exemptions on the grounds of religion and to allow conscientious objection. I believe religious ministers should be free to marry who they want, but the government’s proposal could mean civil celebrants, marriage registrars and wedding service providers like bakers and florists are all free to discriminate.”

Bill Shorten affirmed this position before the election: “We don’t need to water down anti-discrimination law to keep some people [who oppose same-sex marriage] happy.”

And last month Attorney General George Brandis released an exposure draft for a marriage redefinition bill. The draft included protections against US-style prosecutions of religious and civil marriage celebrants, and “Religious organisations.” No protections however were listed for business owners.

It is possible therefore that any Australian small-business operators who believe that marriage redefinition is immoral and harmful, will be compelled to act against their conscience, under threat of prosecution, and to offer their property, goods, and services for the celebration of a homosexual wedding.

It is impossible to exaggerate how momentous this is.

We are talking here about the destruction of a principle that is foundational to free Western society: the liberty of conscience; a principle bequeathed to us by our forebears at a spectacular expense of blood, sweat, thought, and tears.

It was for freedom of conscience that whole communities fled from Europe to the New World. Thus the American Declaration of Independence came to establish “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as “unalienable rights.” This at the very least meant liberty from coercion against one’s conscience.

In mid-17th Century England, a Civil War in full swing, poet-scholar John Milton—eyes now steadily fading to total blindness—railed against the state’s attack on civil liberties, and the “gross conforming stupidity” that it was fostering. Thus in  Areopagitica,  his great manifesto for free speech, he declaimed, “I fear yet this iron yoke of outward conformity hath left a slavish print upon our necks.” Milton understood that when our conscience is denied, we are enslaved.

English philosopher John Stuart Mill drove this home in the magnificent second chapter of  On Liberty  (1859): “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

In August 1941, in the cold Atlantic seas off Newfoundland, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met on the wooden decks of the mighty Royal Navy battleship  Prince of Wales. In all of Churchill’s vast written history of the Second World War, there are few more moving scenes. Britain had held fast against the Axis powers, alone, for two years, and was close to exhaustion. The United States with all its vast military resources was yet to commit.

And there on the ocean the two great leaders forged the  Atlantic Charter,  a joint policy statement in the face of Nazi war and oppression. Of the Charter’s five brief statements, it is the third and central one that sums up the philosophical essence of the Allies’ struggle. This would not at heart be a fight to protect territory and riches, but a fight for freedom:

The United States and the United Kingdom “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live. They are only concerned to defend the rights of freedom of speech and thought, without which choice must be illusory.”

And as we study Churchill’s wartime speeches, we see that human freedom is his  idée fixe. Thus he said, as he received an honorary Doctor of Laws at Harvard University in September 1943:

“We do not war primarily with races as such. Tyranny is our foe, whatever trappings or disguise it wears, whatever language it speaks, be it external or internal, we must forever be on our guard, ever mobilised, ever vigilant, always ready to spring at its throat. In all this, we march together. Not only do we march and strive shoulder to shoulder at this moment under the fire of the enemy on the fields of war or in the air, but also in those realms of thought which are consecrated to the rights and the dignity of man.”

Post-war, this hard-won freedom was enshrined in Section 18 of the 1948 United Nations  Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

No one denies that it is upsetting to be refused service.

An ad agency refused to serve me in September 2012 for a pro-marriage speaking event that I was organising in Hobart. I had the funds in place, the agency had been warmly recommended, and they said no. They didn’t want to promote the event because of the stance that we were advocating. Was this hurtful? Yes, of course. It stings a bit to be told by a business that they don’t want to accept your money and provide you with the service that they seem provide to everyone else.

In March 2015 the Australian government-funded SBS Television was contracted to run a pro-marriage TV advertisement. The ad was produced by Queensland GP David van Gend and the Australian Marriage forum. At the last minute, however, SBS refused to run the ad. In September this year a Mercure Hotel in Sydney declined to host a group of Christians who were planning for the (now doomed) plebiscite. And earlier this month a printer refused service, again to Dr van Gend, because they did not like the contents of his book, Stealing from a Child.

Let’s think about this. It is always wrong to refuse service to a person because of who they are — their race or age or gender, for example. But, as was the case with the florist, these businesses were not refusing, we presume, to serve Christians because they are Christians. They were refusing to give their services to support something that they couldn’t agree with.

And as upsetting as that may be (the state-sponsored SBS notwithstanding), that is their right. No one should force anyone to act against their conscience.

No one should think that what has been recently proposed for Australian businesses will affect only a handful of fanatical florists. If you destroy the liberty of even one person’s conscience, you destroy it for all.

We cannot prize highly enough our magnificent heritage of freedom of conscience. Our forebears fought hard to win it, and now it is time to defend it. 

Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: thoughts and letters.  

Campbell Markham lives in Hobart, Tasmania, and has been a Presbyterian pastor for over 20 years. He is married to Amanda-Sue, with grownup children, and teaches a weekly online theology class.