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Masterpiece Cakeshop case speaks to a culture of religious exclusion 

Queer & There

If you aren’t already familiar with the Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case that the U.S. Supreme Court heard on Dec. 5, let me give you the CliffsNotes version. In 2012, a gay couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, got legally married in Massachusetts and then returned to their home in Colorado for a wedding reception. They went to Lakewood’s Masterpiece Cakeshop and asked the owner, Jack Phillips, to bake them a custom wedding cake. He refused, citing his Christian religious views. To design the couple a cake would, in his mind, condone homosexuality, and violate his sincerely held beliefs.

The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission under the state’s public accommodations law, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which resulted in a lawsuit, Craig v. Masterpiece Cakeshop. The case dragged through the state courts but Craig and Mullins prevailed.

At that point, Phillips petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari (review), asking it to decide whether his free speech and freedom of religion rights had been violated — the case we now know as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which pits the right of religious freedom against marginalized people’s right to access goods and services. In this clash of civil rights, which will gain primacy?

There’s a lot at stake here, and it isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the baker, Phillips, will claiming religious exemption allow business owners to wantonly discriminate against classes of people they don’t like, thereby undoing decades of civil rights legislation? If Phillips loses, can business owners be forced to provide goods and services against their moral convictions?

The specter of conservative Christianity looms over the court proceedings. Christian religious convictions have been used as an argument to uphold sexism, racism, homophobia and other systems of oppression for centuries, consolidating power for the rich, the white, the straight and the male.
As current events challenge their moral authority, the powerful claim they are being oppressed, and it may indeed feel that way from their skewed perspective. In reality, though, it is a slow release of their stranglehold on the conscience of the country. What they lament as depravity and immorality is concurrently celebrated by others as greater freedom, and access to protections and basic human rights.

At the core of the disconnect is the idea that sinning is something “other people” do. Conservative Christianity condemns a long litany of vices, which serve to separate us from them, sheep from goats, moral from immoral, in-group from out-group. Homosexuality is one such vice, an easy-to-spot deviance that allows those in the in-group to point and say, “Look, the sinners are over there! I’m not one of them!”

This systemic flaw within much of Christian theology feeds the religious principles that compel people to discriminate on the grounds of their faith, as we see in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. This mindset is antithetical to the humility and radical upending of social structures Jesus taught. In fact, it sounds like the Pharisees and Sadducees he spent a lot of time calling out.

Writer Anne Lamott points out in her book Bird by Bird: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Creating artificial division using a constructed morality is nothing short of idolatry. We place ourselves in the role of God, deciding who is worthy of love and service. It is a supreme act of hubris — and everyone is guilty of it.

Moral superiority is intoxicating, regardless of which side of the political or theological spectrum you are on. It is so much easier to look at another group and say “at least I’m not like them,” using their perceived flaws as an excuse to get out of doing your own introspection and work. What if, instead of using Christian morals and ethics to demonize and ostracize other people, we held ourselves accountable? What if we searched out and repented of our own selfishness, exclusion, greed and contempt? What if we worked to remove the plank from our own eye before we focused on the speck in someone else’s?

We don’t know how the Masterpiece Cakeshop case will work out. Analysts say the vote probably hangs on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has a track record of both protecting free speech and advocating for LGBTQ rights. Whichever way it goes, it’ll change the face of civil rights legislation, and I doubt the conversation will end there. As we await the decision, I urge Christians of all stripes, myself included, to turn our energy toward a humble and merciful walk with God, mindful of our faith’s inherent grace for all people.

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