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Faith leaders raise their voices in opposing rights of Christian baker in Supreme Court case

POSTED: October 31, 2017 5:29 a.m.
Major religious groups, as well as nearly 1,300 individual Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, signed on to briefs filed Monday with the Supreme Court, arguing that religious business owners should be required to serve same-sex couples.

"Personal religious views are entitled to the utmost respect, but do not provide a license to disregard neutral civil rights laws that do not directly and substantially burden actual religious exercise," reads an amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief filed on behalf of the 1,300 clergy members.

The faith-related briefs were among an estimated 50 filed Monday opposing the Christian baker in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Justices are scheduled to hear arguments Dec. 5 in the case that centers on whether cake decoration is a form of expression protected under the First Amendment. It's one of dozens of similar cases filed in the past two years aimed at protecting the rights of supporters of traditional marriage in the wake of the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage.

Monday's briefs come a month after 46 briefs — most with multiple signatories — were filed in support of the baker's position.

A ruling against the gay couple would harm, not help religious freedom, argues a brief joined by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Chicago Theological Seminary.

"Public accommodations laws like Colorado's generally promote religious liberty, by protecting individuals from discrimination on account of their religion. Such laws also promote human dignity, which is itself a religious value," it reads.

The two briefs, as well as one from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups, bring a liberal religious voice to the high-profile case, countering the faith-related filings submitted in September from more conservative groups. Supporters of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused, for religious reasons, to bake and decorate a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"It's important for the justices to know there is more than one set of beliefs around LGBTQ inclusion and welcome," said the Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey, president and CEO of the Religious Institute, one of the organizations that helped spearhead the brief from 1,300 faith leaders.

Religion and service refusals

Religiously affiliated adults are divided on how to resolve the conflict caused when wedding-related business owners refuse to serve same-sex couples, with 45 percent arguing that owners should be allowed to refuse service for religious reasons and 49 percent saying that they should be required to serve everyone, according to data provided to the Deseret News by Public Religion Research Institute.

These results, as well as the new briefs, correct the common assumption that debates related to the rights of the LGBT community pit people of faith against more liberal Americans, said Daniel Cox, the institute's director of research.

"Religiosity is painted as a conservatizing force. It's thought to make you move in only one direction," he said.

But, as the Public Religion Research Institute reported in September, people of faith hold a variety of views on religious-based service refusals. The only religious group in which a majority of members support them is white evangelical Protestants.

Nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals (65 percent) say that business owners providing wedding-related services should be allowed to refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples for religious reasons, compared to 29 percent who say that service should always be required, according to the research institute.

Responses from other Christian communities are more mixed. Only five percentage points separate those who support (49 percent) and object to (44 percent) religiously based service refusals among white mainline Protestants, the research institute reported.

Although the recent survey did not include enough members of the LDS Church for a faith-specific analysis, the institute asked a similar question about service refusals in its 2016 American Values Atlas.

More than 4 in 10 Mormons (42 percent) say they "strongly favor" or "favor" allowing a small business owner in their state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people if doing so violates their religious beliefs, compared to 52 percent who "oppose" or "strongly oppose" this policy, according to data provided to the Deseret News.

The institute's surveys do not ask what drives support for religiously based service refusals, but Cox and his colleagues sense that it's partially motivated by anxiety over decreased interest in religious practice and a surge in overall public support for the LGBT community.

Conservative Christians "have seen a tremendous amount of change and a loss of cultural and political clout," Cox said.

As their teachings on marriage become less popular and even called "discriminatory" by some Americans, conservative faith groups are fighting to protect their ability to live out their beliefs. Faith-related arguments in support of the Christian baker included calls to respect those who oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons, as the Deseret News reported in September.

Creating religious accommodations to allow faithful business owners to decline to participate in same-sex weddings would protect religious freedom without unduly harming members of the LGBT community, argued the brief signed by the LDS Church.

"American citizens should never be forced to choose between their religious faith and their right to participate in the public square," read a brief signed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Catholic groups.

The political makeup of faith groups also affects reactions to religiously based service refusals, since there's a strong partisan divide on this issue. Two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) say wedding-based business owners should be able to refuse to provide service to same-sex couples, compared to only 24 percent of Democrats, the research institute reported.

Many religious groups and individuals who support the gay couple come from more liberal faith traditions, like the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church. However, participants resist the notion that their activism is driven by political, rather than religious, concerns, said the Rev. Amanda Henderson, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.

"We are called to love our neighbors and even our enemies. These are core religious beliefs, not a political issue," she said.

Ongoing activism

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case originated in July 2012, when a gay couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, discussed a wedding cake order with cake shop owner Phillips. Phillips declined to participate in their celebration, citing his religious concerns.

Mullins and Craig then filed a state civil rights complaint, and an administrative law judge, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals all eventually ruled in the couple's favor. The Supreme Court announced in June that it would hear Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado has been engaged with the case from the beginning, since the bakery is located in a suburb of Denver. Members have opposed bills that would pave the way for more religiously based service refusals and spoken out regularly about their support for LGBT couples.

"We've been working hard to get the message out that this is a misuse of religious freedom," said Rev. Henderson, who is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.)

Around 60 affiliated leaders signed on to the Religious Institute's brief, and they helped recruit more participants from other states, she added.

The Religious Institute has organized faith leader briefs for other major cases, such as the one that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in June 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges. Then, as in the new brief, participants emphasized the diverse LGBT-related views present within the American religious landscape.

"A vast range of religious perspectives affirms the inherent dignity of these (LGBT) women and men, their relationships and their families," argued the brief, which was signed by 1,900 individuals faith leaders and nearly 20 religious organizations.

Leading up to Masterpiece Cakeshop oral arguments, participants in the brief from faith leaders will lead outreach events and community prayer services, the Rev. Alford-Harkey said.

"It's important to get that voice out there and say there are people of faith who don't agree that discrimination against folks in a civil society is a good idea," she said.

Amicus briefs are not a well-known form of activism, but they can fulfill the same purpose as political rallies or social media campaigns. They allow religious organizations to share their beliefs around a specific issue and serve as a touchstone for ongoing engagement with a high-profile case, the Rev. Alford-Harkey said.

"It gives us a chance to articulate our theological vision and how it impacts the public arena," she said.
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