Story by V. Michelle Bernard
This week the Supreme Court of the United States of America decided in favor of Jack Phillips, a Christian baker in Colorado, who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious convictions. The case, watched closely by religious liberty experts, highlighted the tension between gay rights and same-sex interests and the rights of those with religious convictions who feel that providing certain services to same-sex individuals violates their right to practice their religion.
The couple filed a charge of discrimination, saying that Phillips violated the public accommodations law of Colorado that prohibits businesses from discriminatorily refusing services to protected classes, which include sexual orientation.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that Phillips violated the law. On appeal Phillips argued a violation of rights to free speech and the exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case reached the Supreme Court.
What the Decision Does and Doesn’t Mean
The court ruled 7-2 that the ruling by the state’s Civil Rights Commission had hindered Phillip’s free exercise of religion rights, but not his free speech. Walter Carson, general counsel for the Columbia Union Conference, says this case didn’t break any new ground in the area of free exercise, and cautioned that religious rights could still be in jeopardy in other same-sex contexts. If a church wanted to participate in an animal sacrifice, for example, that wouldn’t be protected. “The court will likely decide [other free exercise/same-sex conflict disputes] on a case-by-case basis.”
Carson adds, “I think this decision will ultimately be important because there are a number of cases in the courts with tension between the free exercise of religion clause and government laws seeking to safeguard of same-sex rights. There were justices in the Obergefell case [that found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage] that identified the likelihood of such potential problems. The Supreme Court seems to be saying ‘we can’t give you an answer, right now on how these cases will be decided. This case is the beginning of laying the foundation where the Supreme Court will try to reconcile and preserve both same-sex rights with the rights of the free exercise of religion.”
Should I “Bake a Cake?”
Local Seventh-day Adventist churches that provide public services such as renting their sanctuaries for events may come under public accommodation laws, says Carson. Individual Adventists who provide public services relating to marriage or renting property are also covered. “If they didn’t want to provide services to same-sex couples in violation of their religious beliefs, they, too, could be accused of violating the law,” says Carson, who adds, the precedent set in this case provides them with a remedy as well.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church teaches that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but the choice to provide services to same-sex couples is an individual decision, says Carson. A better question might be, “Does your conscience—informed by your religion—condone providing services to individuals who act contrary to your religious beliefs and practices? This is a question you have to answer yourself. … A better question is, ‘What would Christ do?’”