In Masterpiece Case, Engage the Complexity without Denying People’s Dignity

Protestors rally in support of LGBT rights

How should Catholics approach the legal case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission about which oral arguments were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court last week? John Gehring of Faith in Public Life said the answer to this question is nuanced, but clear.

Writing for Commonweal, Gehring said Masterpiece “involves a complex set of vital, sometimes competing, rights at play in a pluralistic society.” These rights include religious liberty, freedom of expression, respect for conscience, and non-discrimination. The cakeshop’s owner, John Phillips, says forcing him to bake a cake for a same-gender couple’s wedding infringes on his religious liberty and freedom of expression, as he claims to be an artist. Opponents worry such a precedent could lead to broad exemptions in law leading to widespread discrimination against LGBT people and other protected classes.

John Gehring

Navigating this complexity is “the hard work of democratic citizenship,” said Gehring, and people of faith are well-suited to help this work. He wrote:

“This work is getting harder every day. The public square has balkanized in ways that make prudent deliberation about the common good more difficult. . .Civil discourse that grapples with nuance and complexity is hard to find. But people of faith should be able to model something better. . .

“What is an authentically Christian response to this case? Many white evangelicals and conservative Catholics feel Christians are besieged by a hostile secular culture. . .Despite this sense of victimhood, Christian conservatives don’t have a monopoly on claims about religious liberty. Their claims are not absolute, either, and the millions of faithful people who value religious liberty and insist that LGBT rights are human rights should not be ignored.”

Gehring challenged the “lazy cultural narrative” where all religious Americans reject LGBT rights in favor of religious liberty. He highlighted public statements made by Christian churches against Phillips’ claims, including some churches which do not support marriage equality. Though there is complexity in this case, some five hundred faith leaders signed onto Faith and Public Life’s statement that stated clearly, “Religious freedom should never be used as a justification for discrimination.”

Gehring acknowledged two realities which show why the Masterpiece case is important:  anti-LGBT discrimination is prevalent; and religion is not going to disappear from public life anytime soon. The way forward from Masterpiece is clear to him as a Catholic:

“Religious Americans on the right. . .recognize that their faith comes with public responsibilities, and progressive people of faith should not blithely dismiss their sincere convictions. But respecting the sincerity of a conviction from a faithful fellow citizen and codifying that conviction into a law governing a diverse society are two different things. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative Catholic, noted in a 1990 case, laws of general applicability ‘could not function’ if they were subject to nearly unlimited religious exemptions. Quoting from an 1878 decision, Scalia warned that such exemptions would ‘permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.’

“Pope Francis describes religious liberty as ‘one of America’s most precious possessions.’ We don’t honor religious liberty or the radical inclusivity of Christ by telling people made in the image of God that their love and commitment are not worth a cake.”

With this essay, Gehring joins many other Christians who are speaking out against anti-LGBT discrimination an advocating for a ruling in Masterpiece that will protect LGBT people.  Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL, joined some 1,300 faith leaders in an amicus brief, and told a journalist:

“If someone, whose political, social, or religious views I did not share, came to my house, I would surely offer them a cake and a comfortable cup of tea, as Jesus would do. So why would I not sell them the same?”

Gehring’s contribution to the discussion of LGBT rights is helpful both in its nuance and in its clarity: adjudicating rights is complicated, but denying people’s dignity is never an acceptable path. Perhaps this argument is best summarized not by turning to democratic tradition but by paraphrasing an infamous Catholic monarch, “Let LGBT people eat cake!”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 13, 2017

3 replies
  1. Richard Boyle
    Richard Boyle says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Gehring’s cogent argument, until the members of the USCCB “buy in” it’s all pretty much a standoff between the progressive thought of a large segment of society (including Catholics, of course) and the official “Magisterium of the Church.” I’ve said this before, and I repeat my personal opinion…The Church is never going to accept the realities of the LGBT community or the personal lives of LGBT persons, and it will continue to dehumanize them as it continues to pontificate in an area which represents power…the ability to define an ultimate and singular sexual morality.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Very astute and accurate observations, Richard. But the virtual wrecking-ball wielded by today’s young Catholics, who overwhelmingly affirm and uphold progressive and compassionate social values, is their deep refusal to accept anything that such presumptive “Catholic Authorities” inside the ruling hierarchy declare to be binding and compulsory truths. The entrenched hierarchy presumes that their own private opinions must be accepted by all practicing Catholics — including young (and often university-educated) Catholics. Guess what? It is not going to happen! And the sooner the aging hierarchy realizes this fact, the more likely it is that a renewed and joyful expression of Catholicism will begin to flourish, especially in the Western world — i.e. in America and Europe.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Richard, as has been discussed in other closely-related threads on this topic: the Roman Catholic hierarchy is completely “out to lunch” in its refusal to acknowledge the authentic Christian (and indeed Catholic Christian) faith of many civilly-married GLBT couples. Most ordained Catholic clerics live in a private and cloistered world — which has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual life experience of Catholics in the real world, be they gay or straight. Until and unless this social dysfunction is fixed, no priestly arguments proclaiming the “inherent sinfulness” of faithfully-partnered same-sex relationships ought to be taken seriously.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *