Why Both Sides Are Right in the Wedding Cake Dispute

The legal case soon to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court is: Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. SCOTUS blog has two opinion pieces, one for each side: For Masterpiece Cakeshop and For Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Masterpiece Cakeshop

An LA Times article explains the position of the Cakeshop:

They [his lawyers] described Phillips as a “cake artist” who will “not create cakes celebrating any marriage that is contrary to his understanding of biblical teaching.” They also said he has refused to make cakes to celebrate Halloween or create baked goods that have “anti-American or anti-family themes” or carry profane messages.

The baker in this case, Jack Philips, wishes to be able to refuse his products and services, according to his own discretion, based on his personal judgment of conscience. The problem is that he is not following the teachings of any particular religion or version of the Christian religion. Rather, this is his own, fairly unusual, personal opinion about which products and services are contrary to Biblical teaching. And that is an important point.

The law does not require him to violate a teaching of his religion, but rather to set aside his own judgments about the choices of other persons, and provide everyone with the same services and products. The law asks him not to judge others, and to offer to everyone the same products and services, which his conscience allows him to offer to some persons. Thus, the behavior required of him is not, in and of itself, immoral. For he provides the same services and products to some persons, but not to others.

I don’t wish to see anyone compelled to act against their own conscience. But this particular version of the conscientious objector is far removed from any real compulsion to sin. If Mr. Philips has so many objections to the use of his own products, then he should seek a different profession. Philips is wrong to think that he can stand in judgment over all kinds of relatively ordinary uses of his products and services, and thereby impose his own judgments of conscience on others.

Philips’ assertion that his products are a type of freedom of speech, because they are handcrafted from his own personal creative efforts, is troubling. For it was not so long ago that all products were handmade, as automated manufacturing had not yet been invented. And in such a case, the consumer would be unable to buy anything, unless the maker of the item agreed with the customer’s point of view. Moreover, Philips is providing a service or product for a fee, which, in copyright cases, can be a work for hire, such that the creative rights go to the person paying for the item. The person who orders a special cake, and who specifies its appearance and qualities, is the one exercising freedom of speech.

I disagree with Philips, in his claim to be free to deny products and services to anyone for any reason, according to his own eclectic judgments. His claims are not firmly rooted in Biblical teachings or Christian ethical teachings. Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, and met with the people from her town, whom she brought to Him, despite her relationship with a man who was not her husband (John 4:7-30).

And what would happen if companies run by persons with a liberal point of view, denied wedding services to conservative Christians? Would Philips and his supporters be comfortable, if they were denied products and services for weddings or other events? Society breaks down, if each person refuses to do business with anyone with a different opinion on each controversial issue.

Colorado Civil Rights Commission

The Civil Rights Commission in Colorado has too much power, and the laws that support their work are excessively broad. It is a serious mistake for government to imbue a Commission with what is tantamount to the powers of all three branches of government, so that it can compel any behavior, as long as it seems like a type of discrimination. And we have seen in the ongoing discussion within our society today that such claims of discrimination can be very pervasive. Even voting for the “wrong” candidate is said to express hatred based on a type of discrimination. The founding fathers of this nation and the framers of the Constitution would be appalled at how our freedoms are being eroded by false claims of discrimination and hatred.

In Canada, similar commissions bully anyone who refuses to accept the definitive teaching of modern culture on homosexuality, on same-sex marriage, and on transgender issues. Expressing an opinion contrary to modern secular dogmas is essentially a crime, in some places. The Catholic Church in Canada is forced by law to allow same-sex weddings in Church-owned halls and similar venues. In Europe, some leaders have suggested that Churches, priests, and ministers should be compelled by law to officiate at same-sex weddings. So the trend that begins with forced commercial participation in weddings is clearly headed toward absolute and complete participation, in accord with whatever the culture decides, and with no room for respectful disagreement by believers or ministers of any religion. Our government is democratic, but our culture is totalitarian.

Where SCOTUS should draw the line

Religions and their ministers should not be compelled by law to participate in or host any wedding or other ceremony which they find to be contrary to their own religious beliefs. Priests, ministers, Rabbis, and Muslim clerics must not be required to bless or officiate over any ceremony or union which is contrary to their own sincere beliefs. And they should not be compelled to host the wedding ceremony on property or in buildings owned by a church, temple, or mosque. The enumerated right to freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State release them, absolutely, from such participation and forbid any form of government, whether a judge or a local Commission, from forcing them to violate their conscience.

But the burden of this limitation on same-sex couples is light. For there are many religious ministers who will happily bless a same-sex union or officiate at a wedding for them. They are not being denied access to something the law permits, a same-sex wedding.

However, in my opinion, providing cake, flowers, catering, photography, and a non-religious venue for a same-sex wedding does not violate Catholic moral principles and does not present an excessive burden on the conscience of the providers of those services. They are not being asked to approve of the union. No cake baker insists on interviewing the betrothed couple, to make certain they are right for each other, before selling them a cake.

And the fact that it is a paid service indicates clearly this absence of any judgment or approval. If you pay someone to be your friend, they are not your friend. If you pay someone to be your lawyer, they will argue your side of the case, whether they like it or not, even if you are guilty of a serious crime. No one thinks that a criminal defense attorney only represents the innocent. If a baker can refuse a cake based on his conscience, then a public defender can refuse to represent a defendant because he is believed to be guilty.

For Catholic bakers of wedding cakes, the situation is even more clear. Catholic teaching clearly permits remote material cooperation in the act of another person, even when that act is a grave sin under Catholic teaching. It is not a sin for a Catholic to provide services to a same-sex wedding, other than officiating over the wedding ceremony (as Joe Biden has done). No Catholic baker refuses a cake to a couple who are divorced and are remarrying, even though the marriage is not valid under Catholic teaching. Catholic bakers have never taken the position before that they must approve of the union before providing the cake.

However, I do not wish to see the government, especially at the level of a Civil Rights Commission, given the power to compel persons to act against their (mistaken) consciences. Such a power can easily be misused, with the result that conservative religious believers might be treated as criminals and oppressed because of their religious beliefs. If a same-sex couple can easily find wedding services from persons who are willing, then the law should not compel believers to act against their consciences.

Even so, it is worrying to read the basis for the position of the other side to the case. They openly state that their opinion on these matters is certainly true, and that anyone who disagrees is necessarily guilty of bigotry or hatred or unjust discrimination. They seek to punish, with fines, jail time, or the deprival of one’s livelihood, any person or business who sincerely disagrees. It is as if their understanding were absolute and infallible, and as if they had the right to impose that understanding on everyone else. Anyone who disagrees with them is treated as evil or criminal. And their case is based on these claims, more so than on a simple right to participate in the goods of the society in which they live.

The basis for their side of the case is not their own opposing religious beliefs, but rather a non-religious belief system, which proposes truths as required beliefs and utters condemnation to those who refuse to believe. The Constitution forbids the government to impose a religion on its citizens. But we should also interpret the Constitution as similarly forbidding the imposition of a non-religious belief system. And this is especially true when the non-religious belief system openly and directly contradicts religious belief systems.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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5 Responses to Why Both Sides Are Right in the Wedding Cake Dispute

  1. Matt Z. says:

    I dont understand the teaching that a Catholic could participate in remote material cooperation of intrinsically evil acts? Wouldnt the bad circumstances outweigh the good? Could not putting a photographer in a situation where two men are exchanging false vows and kissing be scandelous and/or detrimental to their faith? [edited] I know if I owned a photography store I couldnt imagine taking pictures of two men kissing or taking pictures of any other intrinsic evil acts. It would directly go against my conscience.

    • Ron Conte says:

      We are all sinners. The principles of cooperation with evil tell us when we can and cannot act, when our act is related to the sin of another person. It’s a complex area of ethics. I can’t give a full enough answer in a comment. I’ll make my book “Roman Catholic Teaching on Cooperation with Evil” free in Kindle format for the next 3 days, October 4, 5, and 6 of 2017.

  2. Matt Z. says:

    Much thanks, God bless!

  3. Matt says:

    Saints Justa and Rufina are venerated by the Catholic Church as martyrs. The sisters were natives of Seville who made fine earthenware pottery for a living, with which they supported themselves and many of the city’s poor. During a pagan festival, they refused to sell their wares for use in these celebrations. In anger, locals broke all of their dishes and pots. The city’s prefect, Diogenianus, ordered them to be imprisoned. Failing to convince them to renounce their Christian faith, he had them tortured on the rack and with iron hooks. This method also having failed, they were imprisoned, where they suffered from hunger and thirst. They were then asked to walk barefoot; when this did not break their resolve, they were imprisoned without water or food. Justa died first. Her body, thrown into a well, was later recovered by the Bishop Sabinus. Diogenianus believed that the death of Justa would break the resolve of Rufina. However, Rufina refused to renounce her faith and was thus thrown to the lions. The lion in the amphitheatre, however, refused to attack Rufina, remaining as docile as a house cat. Infuriated, Diogenianus had Rufina strangled or beheaded and her body burned. Her body was also recovered by Bishop Sabinus and buried alongside her sister – Wikipedia

    We celebrate these Saints in the Catholic Church who believed that it was immoral for them to sell their products to a pagan festival and died for the faith. These Saints should be examples to all of us Catholic to refuse to sell their products or services for gravely immoral celebrations, especially a ‘marriage’ between members of the same sex.

  4. John says:

    See you later Mr Conte you have lost me on this subject failing to making any sense ,no matter your vocabulary skills , or the plethora of words.

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