No discrimination allowed
By Curtis W. Freeman
On June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its opinion in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Supreme Court ruling addressed a narrow matter of the law regarding the neutrality standard for free-exercise cases, arguing that the religious objections of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker and conservative Christian, were not fairly considered by the lower courts.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy explained that religious objections to same-sex marriage are protected, but he continued that “such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”
It is important to note that the Supreme Court ruling did not address the broader issues at stake in the First Amendment. The Masterpiece ruling did not suggest that the free exercise of religion permits discrimination of persons on the basis of sexual orientation, in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was restrained in his comments, pointing to the rebuke of the lower court’s hostility toward religious viewpoints. Others were less nuanced, seeing it as an open door for discrimination on religious grounds.
Jeff Amyx, a Baptist minister and owner of a hardware store in Grainger County, Tenn., left no doubts about his beliefs. He hung a handwritten sign on his shop door that read, “No gays allowed.” Responding to the Supreme Court ruling, Amyx commented, “This is ‘happy days’ for Christians all over America, but dark days will come.”
Some of us remember the dark days when signs like this hung in businesses, declaring that African Americans were not allowed at drinking fountains and lunch counters.
It was a dark day on Feb. 21, 1956, when W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, addressed a meeting at First Baptist Church of Columbia, S.C., using religious liberty as a defense for racial segregation. Criswell declaimed that true ministers must passionately resist government mandated desegregation because it is “a denial of all that we believe in.” Criswell made the same speech the next day to the South Carolina legislature.
Just days before his 1968 election as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, under pressure from church leaders, Criswell “changed” his views on segregation.
When one person’s religious liberty becomes the basis of discrimination against another person’s human dignity, it turns the First Amendment upside down. The cake case did not make bigotry or discrimination legal. Discrimination of any sort, religious or otherwise, is illegal. It violates the equal protection under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But, worse than that, it is just unloving. It violates the great command of our Lord, to love God and neighbor (Luke 10:27)
The time has come for those who cloak discrimination in religious language to stop. The day is surely coming when the Supreme Court will be forced to address the question of free exercise more broadly. And when that day comes, a bright light will shine on an ugly fact. Let us then be children of the light, and put out signs that say loud and clear, “No discrimination allowed.”
Curtis W. Freeman is research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at the Divinity School at Duke University, Durham, N.C. He is editor of American Baptist Quarterly. His books include “Contesting Catholicity” and “Undomesticated Dissent.”
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.