On December 5, the Supreme Court will hear a case involving a Christian bakery owner from Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Jack Phillips, the Masterpiece Cakeshop baker in question, says that making that wedding cake would have violated his Christian beliefs. That means this case could decide whether someone’s religious beliefs can override anti-discrimination laws.
This week, the Center for Inquiry submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in defense of the gay couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, essentially making a legal argument for why they should win the case even though CFI doesn’t represent them in court. The brief was co-signed by American Atheists and the Secular Coalition for America.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation also submitted an amicus brief making many of the same arguments. (I’ll talk about this one near the end of the article.)
CFI’s brief, written by attorneys Nick Little and Eddie Tabash, is worth reading in full, but the gist of their argument is that the other side wants to create a law that would allow for-profit businesses to discriminate against certain classes of customers.
If this Court creates such a new right, it will fundamentally undermine not only anti-discrimination law, but also the careful balance drawn between the defense of private belief and society’s right to require that for-profit businesses abide by non-discrimination laws.
The current laws, CFI adds, do not prevent people from abiding by their religious beliefs. Asking a baker to make the same kind of cake for a gay couple that he would a straight couple really isn’t asking him to violate his religious beliefs at all.
CFI also pushes back on Phillips’ claim that, by making the cake, he would be participating in the wedding itself. They say he didn’t know what kind of cake they wanted him to make, if he’d be delivering the cake to the wedding, if he’d interact with any guests at all, etc. Before Phillips knew any of those details, he had already refused his services to the couple.
Similarly, Phillips’ claims that “artists” like him shouldn’t have to design a product that violates their beliefs falls flat since he didn’t even know what design the couple wanted on their cake at the time of his refusal. It’s not like he said no to a cake with a giant rainbow on it. He said no to what could’ve been a plain wedding cake with icing on it.
CFI also worries that a victory for faith-based discrimination would spill over into other areas:
If anti-discrimination laws do not apply to petitioners because of their objection to same sex marriages, do they also not apply to hairdressers, who may assert that cutting the hair of a gay man is approving of his lifestyle? May morticians refuse to handle the corpse of a lesbian, so that such action will not be seen as an endorsement of her marriage? Can car mechanics refuse to repair the brakes of a bisexual person, if those mechanics fear that by so doing they are expressing support for the driver’s desire to travel to meet a same sex partner? Petitioners’ claims cannot be confined. Granting an exemption here would create an expanded opportunity for businesses to refuse to obey anti-discrimination laws.
FFRF’s brief is similar to CFI’s in many ways, but attorney Rebecca Markert also notes that discrimination against atheists — and religious minorities as a whole — would increase if the Supreme Court sides with the baker.
The bakery admits that its owner refuses to design custom cakes that “promote atheism” along with those that promote “racism, or indecency”… Given that the company regards selling any wedding cake to a gay couple as “promoting gay marriage,” it’s easy to see how a desire not to “promote atheism” might similarly result in a refusal of service based on a customer’s atheism rather than any actual design request.
For a lot of the media, this is a case about discrimination and LGBTQ rights. That’s why I appreciate seeing these atheist groups chime in on the anti-discrimination side. Sure, there’s a hook for atheists who don’t want to see religion gain an unfair upper hand that permits them to ignore the law by citing their faith. But there’s simply no good secular reason to discriminate against LGBTQ customers. If you believe we’re truly equal, as Humanists do, then we ought to make our voices heard on issues where discrimination is in play.
It’s a point that CFI’s president made in her public statement announcing the brief:
“CFI stands steadfast in favor of equality under the law, as it always has and always will,” noted Robyn Blumner, CFI’s President and CEO. “Phillips and his supporters in the religious right are once again seeking special treatment for being religious so they can ignore the same laws the rest of us obey. That’s unconstitutional, and it’s just plain wrong. The choice for the Justices of the Supreme Court is clear.”
There’s simply no good reason for the Christian baker to win this case. But on a Court where four conservative votes are guaranteed and the decisive fifth has ruled in support of LGBTQ rights in multiple monumental cases, there’s hope that justice will win out instead of faith-based bigotry.
Incidentally, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, along with several other religious and secular church/state separation groups, filed their own amicus brief, which you can read here.
(Image via Shutterstock)