Religious freedom is a fundamental right, not legalized discrimination

Note: This essay is one of two top essays on the topic of religious freedom in a class on opinion journalism taught this past fall by Clemente Lisi, a journalism professor at The King's College in New York City.

(COMMENTARY) Religious freedom often gets a bad rap. Some would have you believe that religious exemptions are nothing more than the government sanctioning irrational hatred. People who refuse to design a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding – like in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case – are often likened to segregationists who refused to provide service to blacks. However, the refusal in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is fundamentally different.

In the case that the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide on this term, the Colorado shop’s owner refused to design a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding because of his Christian belief that those unions are immoral. The owner, Jack Phillips, said he did not want to violate his conscience by participating in, or showing approval of, their union with the making of his cake.   

Free exercise claims have been respected in our country’s history since the founding of America –
not as a necessary evil that we should put up with,
but as something that gives the United States its very vitality.

This refusal has been likened to the way shop owners put up signs that read “Whites Only” and discriminated against black customers because of the color of their skin. Of course, claiming that an act violates someone’s religious beliefs cannot provide justification for refusal claims. After all, we would not want to say that it is permissible for someone to refuse service to blacks just because they think it violates their conscience or they think it is religiously motivated.

In cases like Masterpiece, in which a person refuses to provide a service for fear it violates their conscience, they are not discriminating against a class of people. Phillips did not refuse to serve gays. He has baked cakes for gay customers in the past. He will not, however, bake a wedding cake for them because he does not want to be complicit in celebrating their union, which he thinks is immoral. It is the message he is most concerned about.

In segregation cases in which a shopkeeper posts a “Whites Only” sign, they are refusing service to an entire race of people. Black people were not served because of their skin color alone. Their skin color, however, is inextricably tied to who they are. They cannot go anywhere without it. Without a word, it is immediately presented before others. While gays may feel that their sexual orientation is also an intimate part of who they are, it can be separated from their identity. After all, Phillips – and others in similar cases that have gone to court – have and do serve gays without any qualms. The sexual orientation itself was not the reason Phillips turned the couple away. By contrast, in segregation cases, the skin color alone was the very basis of being turned away. To equate the two situations is to do a disservice to people who have suffered from discrimination; conflating them only gives ammo to those who perceive Christians as bigots.

This case is not about asking the government to sanction irrational hatred. Instead, it is about asking the government to respect the beliefs and rights of religious people as dictated by the First Amendment. These religious claims are tied not only to freedom of religion, but to freedom of speech as well. The act of baking such a cake for a gay customer was not the problem. Baking a cake for a gay wedding is something the federal or state government should not force Phillips to do. As with other free speech claims, the government doesn’t have to agree with it (like in cases involving flag burning or the rights of hate groups to hold a rally). They can find it morally reprehensible. But just as with these other cases, disagreeing with a message is not a legitimate basis for not protecting it. 

Free exercise claims have been respected in our country’s history since the founding of America – not as a necessary evil that we should put up with, but as something that gives the United States its very vitality. This is a country where the First Amendment, along with other rights that we see as fundamental in the Constitution, are essential to our democracy. Granting religious freedom and respecting the free speech claims of individuals does not come at the expense of others.