On Dec. 9, a Colorado judge ruled that Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips violated the state's anti-discrimination law when he refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. Phillips, a Christian who affirms a traditional definition of marriage, said that baking the cake would violate his religious beliefs.
Some have framed the case as an assault by the gay lobby upon the religious liberties of conservative Christians. In scenes that recall the Chick-Fil-A flap in 2012, Christians have responded by lining up outside Masterpiece Cakeshop to show their support for the owner's "First Amendment right" to not participate in the celebration of a same sex wedding.
The expansion of same sex marriage certainly raises important religious liberty questions, but what saddens me is how little biblical or theological reflection by Christians I have heard online or on the airwaves in the wake of the court's ruling. Instead I've encountered a torrent of conservative political cliches and anti-liberal talking points. "This is America," one radio host said, "a business owner should be free to serve or not serve whomever he wishes." Another Christian called the court ruling "an attack on our first and greatest freedom." (I assume he was speaking of the First Amendment and not the freedom won for us by Christ's death and resurrection.)
Christians should not merely interpret the wedding cake case through the lens of the culture wars whether they agree or disagree with the politics of the ruling. We must consider how Scripture and Christian values would have us live beside our LGBT neighbors. Toward that end, I want to examine three objections raised by the wedding cake lawsuit.
Objection 1: Providing a wedding cake is participating in the celebration of a same sex wedding.
In an interview after the ruling Phillips said, "I don't feel that I should participate in their wedding, and when I do a cake, I feel like I'm participating in the ceremony." His attorneys made a similar argument before the court. They said creating a cake was a form of "participating in the wedding celebration." Therefore, based on the First Amendment, Phillips cannot be forced by the government to engage in a religious ceremony that violates his faith.
Where Mr. Phillips is in error, I believe, is not in his traditional definition of marriage, which I too affirm, nor in his desire to honor God through his work, which I've recently written an entire book about. The error is equating serving a gay couple with participating in a gay wedding, or believing that God cannot differentiate between our service for a neighbor and our affirmation of that neighbor's beliefs.
Consider the story in 2 Kings 5 of God's kindness to Naaman, a foreigner suffering from leprosy. After being healed Naaman devoted himself entirely to Israel's God and vowed to worship no other. There remained one problem. Naaman was a servant of the King of Syria who worshiped another deity. Being old and weak, the King needed Naaman's help kneeling during worship. Naaman asked the Lord, through Elisha, to excuse him for this action. Elisha responded, "Go in peace." Naaman was not told to refuse service to his master, or to not enter the "house of Rimmon" the foreign deity. Instead God permitted Naaman to continue serving the Syrian king and to even kneel before the idol because he understood that Naaman's loyalty belonged to the Lord.
Just as there was a difference between Naaman helping his master kneel and actively participating in idol worship, there is also a difference between baking a cake for a gay couple and actively participating in a same sex wedding. If we cannot distinguish between serving our neighbors and affirming our neighbors' beliefs or behaviors, than virtually any Christian participation in society must be viewed as a violation of God's law.
This guilt-by-association view would require a pharisaical separation in order to avoid any possible participation or association with ungodliness. Jesus' refusal to separate himself from the unrighteous is precisely what troubled the Pharisees about him. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" they asked his disciples with contempt. As with Naaman, in Jesus we see that serving those we disagree with is not the same as participating in or affirming their beliefs.
I suspect Mr. Phillips has provided wedding cakes for non-Christian heterosexual couples. If any of those couples were Muslim or Hindu, based on the defense's argument, then Mr. Phillips has "participated" in religious celebrations that are clearly unchristian and even idolatrous. He has also affirmed atheism and premarital sex if any of his customers were nonbelievers or cohabiting. The only way for Mr. Phillips to remain true to his beliefs is to make cakes exclusively for couples that conform to his religious convictions. "What? You are a premillennial dispensationalist. No cake for you!" I trust you can see the absurdity of this approach.
If we can differentiate selling a cake to a customer from affirming the customer's doctrine, how much more can God who pardoned Naaman's kneeling before an idol and sent his Son to dine with sinners? The deeper question we must ask is not whether it is permissible to bake a cake for a gay wedding, but what is the source of outrage over the Colorado ruling. Are Christians upset because the court is preventing us from following the teachings of Jesus, or because the court won't let us behave like Pharisees?
Objection 2: A religious business owner should not be forced to serve customers his faith disapproves.
The weakness of this objection, which I've encountered repeatedly since the court's ruling on Dec. 9, becomes obvious the moment we change the business owner's identity. Would Christians tolerate a Jewish business refusing to serve a patron wearing a cross? Would we accept a Muslim-operated hotel not providing rooms to an evangelical youth group? Would we affirm an atheist's right to not sell carpeting to a church or synagogue?
Christians cannot insist upon the right to deny service to those they disagree with and not expect the same treatment in return. Similarly, had Mr. Phillips' argument won in court others could use his "religious liberty" exemption to discriminate against anyone. This would represent a terrible step backwards to the era of segregation.
The fight for equal opportunity legislation was won decades ago, and in many cases the effort was led by Christians. As a society we have concluded that justice and prosperity require prohibiting businesses "from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation." This quote from Colorado's non-discrimination law was the basis for the judge's ruling against Mr. Phillips. The fact that his refusal to serve a gay couple emerged from a religious belief was irrelevant, just as the refusal to serve African Americans remains illegal even if it is the owners heartfelt religious conviction that whites were created superior by God.
As Christians we should affirm non-discrimination laws not because we believe the actions, beliefs, and values of all people should be affirmed, but because we strongly believe all people are created in the image of God and are worthy of dignity regardless of their identity. This belief, widely affirmed by Western democracies, is a gift from Christian teaching and all too rare in regions of the world lacking a Christian heritage.
Objection 3: If Christians don't stand against this ruling, the government will soon force churches to perform same sex marriages.
Allowing business owners to deny service to any patron based on his religion's teaching is something most American's are probably unwilling to accept. This may explain why those seeking to ignite fears after the Colorado wedding cake ruling are shifting attention to another boogyman: the government forcing churches to perform gay weddings. Here's how one blogger framed it:
"If the government can force a caterer to cater a gay wedding, and a photographer to photograph a gay wedding, and a baker to bake for a gay wedding, why can't it force a church to conduct a gay wedding?"
That would be a terrible thought...if there was any substance behind it. The cases of the baker, photographer, and caterer are all based upon non-discrimination laws -- the same laws that religious institutions are exempt from obeying. Both federal and state laws permit churches and clergy to discriminate in a number of areas including marriages. As an ordained pastor, I may refuse to marry anyone for any reason and not be sued. (FYI, I refuse to solemnize the union of a Bears fan and a Packers fan. Such a thing is an abomination.)
Similarly, churches may discriminate in their hiring and services in a way non-religious businesses cannot. For example, the government cannot sue a church for refusing to hire a non-Christian the way it can sue a business. This religious exemption is so firmly established that it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year in a 9-0 ruling. Simply put, this is not a debated area of American law. No one is going to force a church to perform a wedding ceremony that violates its beliefs even if the Supreme Court makes same sex marriage legal nationwide. How can I be so sure?
Considered what happened when the Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage in 1967. As Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow reported, "There was never the suggestion that private religious groups that wouldn't perform interracial marriages would be shut down or lose their tax-exempt status." Civil rights legislation did mandate integration for state governments, public schools and businesses, but the government never forced integration upon churches or punished those that maintained discriminatory practices.
The debate between gay rights and religious liberty does not have to be a winner-take-all conflict as pundits on both sides would like us to believe. It is possible to serve our LGBT neighbors with dignity and love without actively affirming same sex marriage. Similarly, in the wake of the wedding cake ruling, Christians should pause before advocating the suspension of non-discrimination laws that our fore bearers struggled to achieve and which have benefitted so many. Finally, we need to recognize the real threat to the church is not a court or government, but Christians who too easily abandon Christ's commandment to love in order to embrace the politics of fear.