Religious Liberty, Tolerance and the Future of Freedom

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case currently pending at the Supreme Court, involves Jack Phillips, a pastry chef who declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple on the grounds of religious conscience. Jack Phillips, a Christian, felt that it would be against his faith to endorse the wedding, but offered to sell them other pastries in the store or to bake another cake for a different occasion.

While the couple ultimately found another bakery to meet their needs, they filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This complicated case now awaits a decision at the Supreme Court and involves a variety of issues including public accommodation laws, artistic expression, religious rights, business rights, government coercion, and fair and equal treatment before the law.

First, public accommodation laws came from English common law which defined certain industries as public, so that no one could be excluded. This was particularly useful for travelers who needed a place to stay, a place to eat, or a ferry to ride.

In the early 1960’s, African-Americans in this country still lived within racial stratification.  This included exclusion from lodging, transportation, restaurants, bathrooms and water fountains. The public accommodation law, known as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, gave fair and equal access to these services for African-Americans. This law addressed a systemic problem of racism within the United States and gave equal access to a group previously excluded.

Those prosecuting Jack Phillips claim that his refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding is the same as denying the service based on a person’s race. In other words, in terms of public accommodation law, a person’s sexual orientation is equivalent to race.

But is it?

First, Jack did not refuse to serve the same-sex couple. He offered them other items in the store and offered to bake them a cake for another occasion. He declined a specific event. He didn’t decline to serve the people.

Second, comparing the current treatment of same-sex couples to that of pre-Civil Rights Act African-Americans is not a fair comparison. Same-sex couples can buy a train, plane or bus ticket. They can buy a house, stay at a hotel, use public restrooms, and drink from public water fountains. They simply cannot buy all wedding services from all wedding service providers.  Yet this problem was quickly solved when they found another bakery to suit their needs.  This is not a systemic barring from society which necessitates the application of the public accommodation law.

This case attempts to misapply public accommodation laws to grant government recognition of a specialized interest group. It must be remembered that the original intent  of the Civil Rights Act public accommodation laws addressed the specific issue of race. If we expand public accommodation laws to accommodate every grievance group, when does it stop? Do people with bad credit have a “right” to a home loan because to do otherwise discriminates against them?

Interestingly, the arguments of the case center around the discrimination against the same-sex couple, but fail to recognize the discrimination against Christians, Christian beliefs and conscience rights. Jack Phillips had a religious objection to baking a wedding cake for the same-sex couple. Yet those prosecuting him argue that when a person enters public sales, they lose their “right” to conscience. This argument states that there are “limits” to conscience, which is a fancy way of saying that there are limits to religious freedom in the public square. Yet when the government “limits” conscience, it essentially controls it, which stands as the very opposite of religious freedom.

To provide an analogy, what if a neo-Nazi requested a swastika cake from a Kosher bakery. Would the Jewish baker have the right to say, “No?”  Or does the neo-Nazi have a “right” to demand a service from service provider who philosophically and religiously objects to a request?

Such arguments compromise artistic freedom as well as religious freedom by compelling artists, singers, florists, videographers and others to compromise their deeply held religious beliefs. As Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, who represents Jack Phillips, stated, “This court [Supreme Court] has never, never compelled artistic expression or ideological speech and if it does so now, it will lead to a less pluralistic, less diverse, and less tolerant society.”

Additionally, arguments of government coercion would also compel a lesbian graphic designer to design wedding invitations for a heterosexual couple even if she objects. In any other business, the owner has the right to say no.  “No, I can’t take on that project because my mother is dying and I’m her primary caretaker.”  “No, I can’t paint that painting because I’m pregnant and the fumes would harm the baby.”  “No, I’m retired, and I don’t offer that service anymore.” But when it is “No, I religiously or philosophically disagree” why does that change the rights of the business owner to decline?

When the government forces business owners to perform a certain function, we must also ask ourselves, “Who really owns the business?”  Do businesses have a right to make their own decisions, or are they merely private-sector arms of the government?

Ultimately, we must make laws that protect fair and equal treatment of all people, not laws which grant rights to some groups to the exclusion of others.  Laws which coerce people to act against their religious conscience, which limit artistic expression and strip the business owner of his or her ability to decline, limits freedom, rather than expanding it.

Such laws grant rights to those who demand a service while simultaneously stripping the rights of those who have a religious objection to those demands. Such exclusionary policy stands as a loss for everyone’s freedom.  It transforms people of conscience into an excluded minority whose appeal to First Amendment religious rights will be systematically ignored.

Rights and tolerance must be a balance. While we treat lifestyle choices with tolerance and sensitivity, we must also treat a person’s religious beliefs with that same tolerance and sensitivity. As Justice Kennedy stated in regard to the case, “Tolerance is essential in a free society.  And tolerance is most meaningful when it is mutual.”

Originally published on Patriot Post, March 8, 2018.

Image credit: Spee/BigStock

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