The U.S. Supreme Court heard one of the most closely watched cases of its term earlier this week. The dispute involves a Christian baker from Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, says his religious convictions about marriage require him in good conscience not to provide wedding-related services to gay couples. Phillips also makes the more far-reaching defense that his cakes are not simply part of a business transaction but artistic expressions protected by the First Amendment.
The couple suing Phillips, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, filed a complaint before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which enforces the state’s public-accommodations law. Since 2008, Colorado has specifically prohibited businesses from discriminating against customers on the basis of sexual orientation—along with disability, race, creed, color, sex, marital status, national origin, and ancestry. The commission ruled that by selling wedding cakes to straight couples but not gay couples, Phillips violated the public-accommodations law. Colorado courts upheld that decision and rejected the bakery’s First Amendment arguments. In denying that Phillips’s First Amendment rights were infringed, these legal rulings in Colorado lined up with other rulings across the country in similar cases involving florists, banquet halls, and photographers.
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission involves a complex set of vital, sometimes competing, rights at play in a pluralistic society. Religious freedom and respect for conscience are bedrock values essential to maintaining a healthy democracy. This commitment to religious liberty should transcend partisanship and narrow ideologies. A just nation also has the responsibility to safeguard the basic human rights of all people, including our family members and neighbors who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. And freedom of expression is a principle that separates the United States from countries whose citizens suffer under the heels of dictators. How we navigate and balance these rights and responsibilities, legally and socially, is the hard work of democratic citizenship.
This work is getting harder every day. The public square has balkanized in ways that make prudent deliberation about the common good more difficult. A growing body of sociological research shows that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, aren’t just separated by ideological differences. A yawning cultural gap separates them, too. People on the left and right live in different neighborhoods, watch different movies, drive different cars, and rarely if ever speak to someone who has different political views. Media echo chambers confirm our own version of reality. Civil discourse that grapples with nuance and complexity is hard to find. But people of faith should be able to model something better.
What is an authentically Christian response to this case? Many white evangelicals and conservative Catholics feel Christians are besieged by a hostile secular culture. A Public Religion Research Institute survey in February underscored this. When asked their views about which Americans face discrimination, 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants said there is “a lot of discrimination” against Christians in the United States today. Only 44 percent said the same was true about Muslims. Despite this sense of victimhood, Christian conservatives don’t have a monopoly on claims about religious liberty. Their claims are not absolute, either, and the millions of faithful people who value religious liberty and insist that LGBT rights are human rights should not be ignored.
A lazy cultural narrative pits caricatures against each other: godless secularists vs. religious Americans. The reality, of course, is much different. In an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court by the United Church of Christ, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Chicago Theological Seminary—denominations and institutions with different theological views on same-sex marriage—Christian leaders emphasized that religious liberty itself would suffer if businesses were permitted to discriminate. “Colorado’s public accommodations law as applied here strikes the right balance between respect for religious liberty and the protection of individuals’ right to participate in the commercial marketplace free from discrimination,” they wrote. “The balance struck by Colorado ultimately promotes the cause of religious liberty and human dignity, in a manner consistent with our pluralist society.” My organization, Faith in Public Life, released a statement signed by more than five hundred Christian leaders that called for a discussion about religious liberty that rejects false choices. “While we hold different theological beliefs about the definition of marriage, we are united in our firm conviction that LGBT people should be treated fairly and equally,” the religious leaders affirmed. “Religious freedom should never be used as a justification for discrimination.”
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