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Take a Bite Out of Discrimination

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker at Masterpiece Cakeshop, on June 4, 2018.

In a 7-2 judgment, the justices weighed the merits of this specific case, ruling that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the Free Exercise Clause.

They did not, however, decide that all business owners with a sincerely held religious belief may discriminate against customers whom they feel violate their conscience.

Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), released the following statement, “Rather than determining whether the business owner’s refusal to provide a service violated the law, the Court decided today’s case based on the actions of the administrative body charged with enforcing the law.”

She continued, “Religious liberty protects beliefs and actions related to marriage. It does not mean that religious beliefs provide blanket exemptions to nondiscrimination laws that protect our neighbors. Religious objectors, like all Americans, have the right to be treated with respect and not to have their religious beliefs denigrated.”

BJC’s Executive Director Amanda Tyler tweeted, “In the #MasterpieceCakeshop opinion, #SCOTUS rules that how we navigate these difficult issues of competing claims sometimes is as important as what we decide.”

Both Hollman and Tyler point out that this matter is far from settled.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy, resolved, “Society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity or worth. … the exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight by the courts.”

Even the court’s majority in this case recognized the problem of public discrimination based upon an individual business owner’s religious belief. With the legalities of this issue still uncertain, the conversation pivots to ethics.

My problem with the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case was the notion that a private company conducting business in the public arena was able to withhold service from certain segments of society based upon a religious belief.

First, the very nature of that practice should violate the core of civil rights. Every citizen should feel free to walk into any business and solicit their services without fear of discrimination.

When David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and Joseph McNeil sat down at the Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, this is the type of discrimination they were protesting.

If companies offer services to the general public, then they should ethically serve all customers who solicit their goods and services without discriminating against anyone.

Second, if the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling became precedent (and I do not think it will because of the way the ruling was crafted), then businesses could theoretically cease serving Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, African-Americans, white Americans and any other class of people they deemed unnaturally equal based upon a skewed interpretation of the Bible.

They could do so based upon their religious beliefs. While this seems to be a clear violation of civil rights, it is undoubtedly an ethical failure from a Christian perspective.

The Gospels are filled with encounters when Jesus engaged and embraced marginalized and oppressed people. The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9), a Roman centurion (Matthew 8), lepers (Luke 17) and others are examples of how Jesus welcomed all people into his presence.

Even the most quoted verse in the Bible states, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have enteral life” (John 3:16).

There is a growing trend of Christian isolationism and an ever-expanding number of people seeming to proclaim an exclusive gospel.

This movement sets aside New Testament evidence that Jesus and the first-century church were inclusivists and attempted to broaden the community through embracing those different than them.

Third, Christian allies of LGBTQ persons and their inclusion to the church must not be silent.

Those opposing the inclusion of LGBTQ persons into the church and their civil rights in society will not voluntarily cave to the pressure of what is just.

Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded white clergymen of this reality. They were attempting to quell his protest and silence his voice.

King wrote on April 16, 1963, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. … It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

For these reasons, I stand beside my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. No one should face discrimination in the public arena.

Writing in the 18th century, Baptist leader John Leland concluded that disagreements did not give permission to discriminate against freedoms, “The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

If businesses are allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ persons, then how quickly will the day come when others are discriminated against for their identities?

When will the baker decide that the brown skin of a person from Mexico or the Middle East prohibits him from baking a cake and taking their money?

When will the person wearing a Jewish kippah or Muslim hijab be turned away?

Writing in his recent book, “The Soul of America,” presidential historian Jon Meacham asked an appropriate question, “What injustices are we perpetuating even now that will one day face the harshest of verdicts by those who come after us?”

Discrimination can often be a two-edged sword – for when will the day come that businesses hang signs saying, “Christians Not Served Here”?

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King concluded in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” As a country and a people of faith, we must remember that freedom means both freedom for and freedom from religion.

Discrimination of any type, and depth, should remain contradictory to the gospel for people of faith. As Jesus reminded history, his followers are simply called to “love God and love each other.”

This is the one mandate I am absolutely certain we must follow. Therefore, on this day that we contemplate the future of freedom and conscience, let’s make sure that we take a bite out of discrimination in the spirit of loving and serving all.

Mitch Randall

Mitch Randall is executive director of EthicsDaily.com.