Back in December I wrote “A Christian Case for Gay Wedding Cakes.” Little did I know that laws proposed in both Kansas and Arizona would make the issue of gay rights versus religious liberty ground zero of the culture war. Many conservative Christians have come to believe that business owners should have the right to deny products or services to those they disagree with based on religious convictions. (Thankfully the poorly conceived and written Arizona law was vetoed by the state’s governor.)
Amid the flurry of tweets, posts, and articles for and against these laws, my piece about the Colorado wedding cake ruling has gotten caught up in the whirlwind. Unfortunately some have either misunderstood or misconstrued my position. I’ve been accused of throwing my Christian brothers and sisters “under the bus” and pledging allegiance to Caesar rather than Christ. Someone even tweeted that I’m a Judas willing to handover Christians for execution. Ouch.
I’ve decided not to respond to these mischaracterizations of my views because one must consider the source. That changed yesterday when I was mentioned on the Breakpoint radio program by my friend, John Stonestreet. I respect John greatly, so when I heard my view similarly misrepresented on his broadcast I was alarmed. Clearly my original article left room for misunderstanding. I take responsibility for that and will seek to clarify matters here.
Our soundbite culture wants to reduce these very complicated legal, ethical, and moral questions to a simple yes or no, pro or con. My refusal to conform to that expectation puts me at a higher risk of being misunderstood. Still, as Christian leaders we owe the church and our LGBT neighbors careful reporting and thoughtful deliberation on these matters. Too much is at stake. Christians should be leading the effort to think lovingly and wisely about the questions our society is facing rather than adding to the confusion, conjecture, and fear. With that in mind, I appreciate your willingness to take the time to read this follow-up post.
Issue 1: There is a difference between freedom of speech and non-discrimination.
Yesterday I went to my favorite Mexican restaurant for lunch. I really wanted panang curry but, surprise, it wasn’t on the menu because Thai food isn’t often served at Mexican restaurants. What if I tried to order curry anyway? The server might have said, “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t serve curry.” Would I have been justified in suing the restaurant owner for discriminating against me for liking Thai food? Of course not.
A restaurant owner is free to decide what food she makes and does not make. This is a case of free expression. Similarly, a Jewish singer cannot be required to sing a Christian aria. A Muslim actor cannot be forced to accept a part in a film that denigrates Muhammad. A painter cannot be required to paint a portrait of Donald Trump. And a Christian baker cannot be required to make a rainbow cake adorned with two grooms.
In John Stonestreet’s Breakpoint commentary yesterday he said:
“If [a Christian baker] refused to serve a gay person a cupcake, he’s sinning. However, that’s not the same as baking a rainbow cake to celebrate gay marriage. It just isn’t.”
I absolutely agree with John. The government cannot and should not force a baker to create a rainbow cake, or any cake, he doesn’t want to make. This would be a violation of his First Amendment freedom of expression. And yet the Breakpoint article incorrectly said, “Jethani concludes that any religious objections to doing business are illegitimate.” I made no such statement in my previous article and do not know how this conclusion was reached by John Stonestreet. I do not believe anyone should be required by the government to create, produce, or say anything that violates their conscience or religious beliefs. Period.
In the Colorado cake maker case the judge ruled that Mr. Phillips’ freedom of speech rights were not violated because the cake he was asked to make did not include text supporting gay marriage. In other words, the ruling did not say he had to make whatever cake a customer requests. If a customer asks him to bake a rainbow cake with two grooms and icing that says “Hooray For Gay Marriage,” the baker still retains every legal right to say, “No, I don’t make that kind of cake.” And I believe his freedom of speech, like that of all Americans, must be protected.
This is a matter of free speech, not religious liberty.
The court simply ruled that the baker could not refuse to make and sell a cake to a same sex couple that he would make and sell to an opposite sex couple. Or, put more simply, the baker may discriminate when it comes to what kind of cakes he will make, but may not discriminate when it comes to who he will sell his cakes to. The Mexican restaurant can refuse to sell me curry, but it cannot refuse to sell me tacos because I am bald even if the owner is a devout Hairy Ballerina and believes baldness is a sin. I trust you can see the difference.
In addition, the court said baking a cake is not the same as participating in the wedding ceremony. I agree. This is why I wrote my previous article and gave a theological and biblical justification for the distinction between serving a neighbor and affirming the neighbor’s beliefs or behaviors. No where in my previous article did I state that Mr. Phillips should be required to bake whatever kind of cake the gay couple requested. Unfortunately that’s what some have incorrectly assumed I believe.
Issue 2: Photographing a wedding is not the same as baking a cake.
Recognizing the difference between free speech and non-discrimination becomes critical when we consider other pending court cases. For example, later this month the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of the New Mexico wedding photographer who refused to shoot a same sex ceremony. Unlike the Colorado cake maker, the photographer’s attorneys have a much stronger case that photographing a same sex wedding is a form of expression that inherently affirms gay marriage. A baker can make a wedding cake that does not explicitly affirm gay weddings. However, a wedding photographer cannot photograph a gay wedding without a gay couple. Photography is protected under free speech laws. The photographer’s attorneys are arguing that the government cannot and should not force her to create art she disagrees with–including photos that celebrate a same sex wedding. In this case I completely agree with the Christian photographer and I trust the court will rule in her favor.
In addition, unlike baking a cake, photographing a wedding requires attending and actively participating in the ceremony. The government should not require a Jewish singer to attend my wedding and sing a Christian hymn. I do not believe the government should require a Muslim florist to attend a Hindu wedding and create flower arrangements around an idol of Ganesh. I do not believe the government should tell any citizen that they have to attend or participate in any ceremony contrary to their religious beliefs or create any art that violates their conscience.
Again, the Breakpoint article stating, “Jethani concludes that any religious objections to doing business are illegitimate,” is absolutely incorrect.