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.
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