Religion & Liberty Online

Is It Always Morally Wrong to Obey Unjust Laws?

ssmweddingcakeThe U.S. judiciary has made it increasingly clear that the rights of conscience either do not apply or are strictly limited for people who own businesses that serve the public. We have an obligation to keep fighting against this injustice against this judicial tyranny, but in the meantime, what are business owners to do? How, for example, should they respond when forced to violate their conscience by serving a same-sex wedding?

That question has been recently debated on Public Discourse, the excellent website of the Witherspoon Institute, by Russell K. Nieli and Jeffery J. Ventrella. Both men agree it would be morally permissible and even commendable for business owners to avoid violating the law by ceasing to serve all weddings, whether traditional or same-sex, or even by ceasing operations completely and finding another line of work. But they disagree on other options. Nieli suggests it would be morally permissible for such shopkeepers to comply with the law and provide services to same-sex couples if they also announced publicly. Ventrella disagrees, arguing that complying with an unjust law is always morally wrong and thus that any shopkeeper implementing Nieli’s suggestion would be engaged in an action that is inherently immoral.

Robert T. Miller joins the debate and asserts that a shopkeeper who objects to sex-same weddings but who nevertheless provides services at such weddings generally acts in a morally permissible way if he acts to comply with a validly-enacted law, to preserve the goodwill of his business, and to make a just profit.

To begin with, Ventrella is surely mistaken when he asserts that complying with an unjust law is always morally wrong. As Aquinas says, unjust laws do not bind in conscience, meaning that a person is under no moral obligation to obey them (unless there is some special reason to do so, as when disobeying would give scandal and lead others into sin). But saying that there is no moral obligation to obey an unjust law is very different from saying that one is under a moral obligation to disobey such a law.

Indeed, a person is under an obligation to disobey an unjust law only if obeying would involve him in moral wrongdoing, which is often not the case. A tax law may impose an unjust confiscatory tax, but a man does not usually sin if he pays the tax. “Offer no resistance to injury. If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well” (Matt. 5:39-40). Similarly, generations of African Americans who complied with manifestly unjust Jim Crow laws did nothing wrong by complying even though they were not morally obligated to do so. The reason is that there is nothing immoral in sitting in the back of the bus. When African Americans complied with such laws, they suffered injustice; they did not commit it.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).