When religious liberty clashes with gay rights

When religious liberty clashes with gay rights October 5, 2013

This was the headline on a Wall Street Journal story this week:

Some Businesses Balk at Gay Weddings

And the subhead:

Photographers, Bakers Face Legal Challenges After Rejecting Jobs on Religious Grounds

At this point, the Journal arrives at a critical juncture: the lede.

The opening sentences will give a pretty clear idea where this story is headed: Will it be a sympathetic portrayal of gay couples denied basic civil rights? Or will it be a compassionate accounting of businesspeople forced to compromise sincerely held religious beliefs?

Let’s find out:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

The issue gained attention in August, when the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that an Albuquerque photography business violated state antidiscrimination laws after its owners declined to snap photos of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.

Similar cases are pending in Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington, and some experts think the underlying legal question — whether free-speech and religious rights should allow exceptions to state antidiscrimination laws — could ultimately wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What do you think? It appears to me that the Journal decided to play the story down the middle — to report the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions. In this age of advocacy, that’s somewhat surprising, but it’s good journalism, right?

Keep reading, and the story immediately quotes national advocates on both sides of the issue — fairly framing each side’s broad arguments.

Then the story turns to specifics of the individual state cases, in each instance allowing the plaintiffs and defendants equal opportunity to comment. For example:

In Colorado, baker Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood outside Denver, is facing state sanctions for refusing to work on same-sex weddings, after he acknowledged telling about a half-dozen patrons that his Christian beliefs prevented him from baking wedding cakes for such ceremonies.

“We were mortified by the experience,” said David Mullins, a gay man whose offer of business was declined by Mr. Phillips last year and subsequently filed a discrimination complaint.

Mr. Phillips declined to be interviewed. In an email he sent to friends earlier this year, which his lawyer confirmed was authentic, he wrote that his refusal to bake cakes for same-sex weddings is not motivated by a “hatred of gays” but rather “a desire to live my life in obedience to [God] and His Word.”

The Journal even provides a short sidebar summarizing what’s at stake:

Laws in Conflict

Same-sex marriages have highlighted tensions between antidiscrimination and free-speech measures:

• Laws in many states ban businesses from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation.


• The free-speech clause in the First Amendment may protect people from being compelled to speak in favor of issues with which they disagree.

• The First Amendment also protects the right to ‘freely exercise’ one’s religion. Laws in some states restrict the government from hindering the free exercise of religion.

At 800 words, this is not an in-depth story. And it’s not a perfect story. Up high, the Journal mentions cases in Illinois and New York, but it provides no details on those two states. Also, the newspaper quotes no legal experts, such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. But overall, the story provides a blueprint for fair, balanced reporting.

This isn’t rocket science, of course. It’s basic Journalism 101. But it’s nice to see.

Image via Shutterstock


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39 responses to “When religious liberty clashes with gay rights”

  1. Impressive article. I would say they lean slightly to the religious liberty side, with that picture of the Colorado baker up top (I wonder what was in the print edition). And they included two issues I haven’t seen raised. The bakers and florests routinely serve gay people. The objection is to the event. Also, these are not the only bakers and florests around. The service could be obtained. These are not issues I see much when this topic comes up.

    • Good point on the photo placement, FW Ken, although they do have a second photo of a gay couple that enlarges to the same size.

      I, too, wonder how the photos were handled in the print edition.

      • Big picture of the baker, smaller picture of the loving couple, below.

        I thought it a good description of the controversy, too.

  2. Overall a good article in the Journal and good analysis by Ross. I do think, however, the Journal should have mentioned that the biggest issue for most religious people is seeing religious rights trampled on by the government to enforce what Gays want–even though it is religious freedom that is front and center in the Constitution not the Gay Agenda. The tragedy is that power drunk courts are doing a masterful job of gutting the religious guarantees of the First Amendment through legalist ju-jitsu .

    • Turns out no religious rights have been trampled at all! if you run a public business, you must serve the public. In all states, that means, you must serve blacks, woman and jews and-in 21 states-the gays-no exceptions. Dont like it? stay out of public business-pretty simple

    • Religious freedom is front-and-center in the marriage equality crowd too. They have the religious freedom to marry, do they not?

      Or does their religion not count?

    • Having the right to choose to be religious does not give people the right to discriminate against whomever they want, whenever they want. You do not have the right to treat a segment of the populous as if they were lepers. Our secular society does not have to tolerate your chosen intolerance of gay people.

  3. This situation reveals the inner logic of all the anti-“discrimination” laws that now infest almost every area of our lives, beginning with the universally revered Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over the last fifty years, the State has replaced the Church as the matrix of morality and, of course, uses the coercive power of the law to enforce its Liberal religion. IMHO, you can’t coherently complain about these applications of anti-“discrimination” law without questioning the basic premises of all of them. Which, I’m pretty sure, almost no “decent” person is willing to do.

    • Are you willing to question the idea that people shouldn’t be denied access to jobs, goods or services because of someone else’s prejudices or beliefs? We had that conversation, as a society. I think, judging from your use of scare-quotes, you might have been on the losing side.

  4. This seemed like a good article. I wouldn’t say the quotes were really well balanced. The SSM quotes reflected personal trauma, while those on the liberty side didn’t. Perhaps it is the language each side naturally uses: one naturally in tune with successful PR, and one naturally out of tune? I suspect there would be stronger balance if quotes reflected how disturbing it can be for a person of faith to be forced to act against deep seated convictions. However, is it the journalist’s job to dig for balance, if those reflected each side don’t naturally portray such balance? Probably not. However, if you’re really after portraying balance, a decent follow up wouldn’t hurt. Too much leading?

    Perfect balance may also have had to counter to the SSM fight = race fight meme. In the latter there was and is no way to change one’s color (Michael Jackson & tanning lady excluded). In the former, while you are born with certain tendencies, you can certainly chose whether or not to act. A fundamental religious point which stymies most secularists. However, putting in this balance would, I suspect, require showing whether those on the religious liberty side also choose not to provide services to adulterers, fornicators, etc. Those moral sins seem near the same level of biblical law even if they are not at the same level modern social-religious law. But, I may be off here.

    • cvg,

      You definitely make some interesting points concerning the balance on the quotes.

      One issue at play: Attorneys are being quoted (instead of plaintiffs themselves) in most of these cases, and attorneys speak legalese.

      Another issue: the relatively short word count on the story, which doesn’t allow for any source to elaborate a whole lot.

      Still, I was pleased that the Journal made an attempt to let each source make its best case, albeit in a short amount of space.

      • Yeah, I did come off much harsher than I thought… It was a good, refreshingly balanced article. Like you imply, the Journal was even handed in a space where evenness can foster unfavorable repercussions.

    • Well, I think since the people like Lamda Legal have managed to shout “this is discrimination” and after people were boycotted out of jobs for supporting Prop 8 in California, and there were bomb threats against religious groups that supported it, those in favor of man/woman marriage are really worried about the negative repercusions of speaking up too much.
      It would help if someone were to point out the making a mockery of sacred things arguments.

      • A cake or flowers are hardly sacred. Its a paid service. It is not an endorsement of the practice. It isn’t a requirement to attend the wedding so what is the real issue? A strong belief that what other people do is morally wrong.

        • Some churches would consider participating in any way in the marriage to be consenting to it, in which case it does go against their religion. You can argue with whether it ought to or not, but is is clearly stated in many Christian denominations.

    • “…while you are born with certain tendencies, you can certainly chose whether or not to act. A fundamental religious point which stymies most secularists.”

      If someone’s sexual orientation is innate — which virtually every credible medical and psychological organization has concluded for the past 50 years — there is no rational basis not to act out on it. Who exactly is being harmed if two consenting (non-related) adults have a relationship with each other… or get married for that matter? If people are hard-wired to be attracted to the same gender, it is not reasonable for religious people to expect gay people to either: force themselves to live a “straight lifestyle” or take a vow of celibacy. That would be the equivalent of telling a black person to wear “white face” in order to fit into a predominately caucasian society. It’s an affront to that person’s human dignity.

      I do agree that there is a massive amount of hypocrisy that is going on with these religious bakers and florists. Are any of them prying into the personal lives of their straight customers to find out if they happen to be immoral according to their God? Have they had affairs, or been married before, are they sleeping with each other out of wedlock? Apparently, there is only one sin that is worthy of being ostracized in society. Oddly enough it’s the only sin that straight people don’t have. Weird huh?

      • Well your reply does demonstrate how stymied some people are by the core idea that tendencies don’t justify actions. Perhaps coverage of this issue, where possible, needs framed by logical equivalencies, like having heterosexual sex out of marriage, or odd dietary laws whose breaking is sinful. Religions typically don’t appeal to cold rationality for behavior justification: there are lots of ways such appeals can fall off the wagon. Perhaps that’s why many religious perspective quotes reflect bending one’s will to a higher power. It may not always be the most sensible for all specifics, but it sure does have some net benefits – few of which ever get covered.

        Framing coverage as an issue of individual harm, as you say, is possible. However, I’m not sure why that always has to be done. Harm can equally well be determined based upon collective effect. Tight knit groups, societies, cultures and religions, tend to that metric. Thinking that such a metric is obviously illogical is naive dogma. I doubt it is journalistically feasible to do an individual vs. collective narrative discourse within this specific aspect of the SSM debate, but I could be wrong.

        Religion does push the idea that we should “act” better than we are. That’s part of the point of divine assistance and is deeply engraved within some ideas of grace. Not everyone wants to be limited to their natural tendencies 🙂

    • “In the latter there was and is no way to change one’s color
      (Michael Jackson & tanning lady excluded). In the former, while
      you are born with certain tendencies, you can certainly chose whether or
      not to act. A fundamental religious point which stymies most

      You know, RELIGIOUS BELIEFS are entirely malleable and people can certainly choose whether or not to act based on them. How about adding that little fact to the balancing act, hmm?

      (And I already know the answer is going to be “The First Amendment protects religious blah blah blah…” as if the refused customers don’t have religious beliefs of their own being discriminated against.)

      • Actually Monimonika, I was thinking a bit differently as I scanned your comment. My first thought was how your malleability comment seemed similar to naive conceptions of belief which largely neglect how deep-rooted belief systems (not necessarily the religious kind) are in our genetic make-up and associated heuristic conditioning. – sorry for the geek out –

        I’m not sure what your journalism angle is though? Is it that following social and civil law should be individually malleable? That wouldn’t play out too well with natural tendencies, including but not limited to violence, freeloading, abuse of power, etc. Choosing what things to follow and what things to dismiss is a slippery slope. Some will err on the conservative side, some on the liberal side. It is, however, nice for journalists to portray to readers the idea that people on both sides of the line have legitimate reasons for their choices.

        I’ll suggest, again, your comment may reflect the extent to which individualistic narcism in society challenges the ability of people to fathom the following of arbitrary mores. Obedience in religious traditions tends to be a topic which is much more appreciated, contemplated, and nuanced than it is in secular traditions and secular epistemologies. A journalist’s job becomes very difficult when a foundational paradigm, such as tendency does not justify action, is seen as obfuscational.

  5. I thought it was a fairly good article, but I would have liked more to have seen legal experts address the claim that people can get the government to act on them being “humilkiated” and “embarrassed”. It is also interesting that only Washington of the four states where cases are mentioned even has same-sex marriage. The other three states do not have it. I am actually shocked that more have not asked of the New Mexico case “why if the state only recognizes man/women marriage, and does not even have any formal civil unions plan, do photographers have to treat commitment ceremonies the same as real weddings”.

  6. I feel that we had this discussion, in the civil rights movement.

    Perhaps many here don’t remember, but many people, especially in the south, had sincere religious beliefs that God had ordained racial seperation, and that equal rights for all races was against God’s will. To us, today, that sounds both silly and savage, but the belief was real. It was strong. It was fairly common in many churches in the south. Those people honestly believed they were honoring God by discriminating against people based on the color of their skin.

    Most of us now are pretty sure they were wrong, but by no means are all of us. Remember the Justice of the Peace in the south, who recently refused to marry an interracial couple? I believe he didn’t get away with it.

    I frankly can’t see any difference. I can’t see how anyone is “honoring God” by denying services to anyone. It shouldn’t matter to the law if you are discriminating because you believe God decreed separation of the races or because you believe God decreed gay relationships sinful. The law cares about the consequences of actions. And we have decided that belief, no matter how sincere, is no reason to deny goods or services. At least that’s how I understand it.

    • It’s different since photography studios and bakeries are not public offices, elected by the people, and it isn’t a civil right to have a cake at your wedding or pictures there, while there is a law protecting religious freedom. How is it harmful or damaging for Christian business owners to refuse these services to gay/lesbian couples? Unless we’re nationally worried about hurting their feelings of course, which seems to be an unforgivable sin in this country.

      • Well, in the south, black people couldn’t shop in the same stores as white people, couldn’t use the same beauty salons or barbers or doctors, and that was the defense. They have doctors, salons, barbers and grocery-stores they can use, so what’s the harm? There was harm, however. The majority was able to make sure that goods and services offered in segregated neighborhoods were sub-standard. There were daily indignities and insults involved in finding a grocery, restaurant or barber you were allowed to patronize. Separate but equal turned out to be anything but, remember? And if you allow one class of merchants to discriminate, how can you stop it from spreading to grocery stores, doctors, whatever? We seem to have an almost bottomless appetite for condemning each other.

        I admit, I simply don’t get this, as a business practice. You don’t need to approve of every part of a person’s life to do business with them. I free-lance, and have done business with people I don’t like or respect. I have had bosses I don’t like or respect. The rest of the world isn’t here for me to approve of.

        • That’s true, but it’s not quite like segregation in the south for two reasons. First there was a very clear distinction between white businesses and black ones, and like you said “separate but equal” meant crap. But if you walk into a florists shop today, would you be able to immediately know what the owner’s opinion on gay marriage is?

          Second, black people were being discriminating because of their nature, something they had no control over. These businesses aren’t discriminating people cause they’re gay, but because they think gay marriage is immoral and against their religion. It has nothing to do with their patrons’ sexual orientation, just a practice they disagree with. No one’s generically discriminating against gays here, just practices they believe are immoral.

          • White people in the south genuinely believed “race mixing” was immoral. They believed that they were preserving “purity” and a superior culture. Their beliefs have faded in large part, but can still be found in some very conservative mostly southern churches and in the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, a white-supremacist church centered in Idaho. I don’t consider genuine beliefs a valid reason to discriminate, given the evidence of truly nasty genuine beliefs held in the past.

            Also, if you allow florists to discriminate, how can you stop grocers, doctors, restaurants or any business from doing the same thing? This kind of thing metastasizes pretty fast. As I said before, we appear to have a bottomless appetite for dumping on one and other.

            Some small and obscure Christian sects still hold Jews accountable for the death of Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ, Christian that I mentioned above is one. Would you support a photographer refusing to photograph a Bar Mitzvah, because he believe Jews need to repent, and until they do, he doesn’t want to offer support to their beliefs? Or a florist refusing to do the flowers for an interracial couple because she believes race-mixing is a sin, and their marriage shouldn’t be allowed in law? If not, can you explain the difference?

          • If I may: would you be comfortable with making a jewish photographer work at a Neo-Nazi rally? How about forcing a black catering company to help organize a “plantation themed” party for the KKK? Or perhaps less extream examples: a gay baker told to make a cake celebrating an “ex-gay” man changing his sexuality and marrying a woman? An abortion clinic that sublets offices in their building being forced to allow an anit-aboriton group to set up shot in the same building as them? The list is potentially endless, and doesn’t always favor left leaning groups or ideas. So, where do you draw the line?

          • I believe there is a difference between asking a Jewish photographer work with Neo-Nazi’s, in that Neo-Nazi’s are actively working to oppress Jews and have murdered them in the past. I feel the same way about a catering company owned by a black person having to work for a KKK-financed organization. When an organization has a stated purpose of persecution, when it has actively killed people in the group it now wants to employ, I find that a game-changer. I don’t think you can expect people to work for groups or individuals that have a stated purpose of killing them.

            In your gay baker, and ex-gay example, I would say the baker shouldn’t be able to discriminate. The man marrying a woman represents no physical threat, and is in no way oppressing the baker by “switch-hitting.” The baker doesn’t have to approve of the fellow’s marriage to bake a cake.

            I don’t see how a gay couple unaffiliated with any organization that just wants to get married is targeting the Christian church for oppression or posing a physical threat to the business-owner. People living in ways you disapprove of does not constitute oppression in my book. I feel the same way about the gay baker. A gay man deciding to marry a woman does not represent a threat to him. He may feel it’s a mistake. (Our divorce stats suggest many marriages are a mistake.) Frankly, his customer’s choices are none of his business.

            In the abortion-clinic example as long as the anti-abortion group obeyed the law, I don’t think the clinic should be able to refuse to rent to them. If they are a legal organization, not affiliated with the few terrorists on the far-side of the right-to-life movement, they have the same rights as any other prospective tenant. If, however, they are affiliated with the extreme blow-up-the-clinics-and-shoot-the-doctors branch of the movement, again, you are requiring people to take physical risks, and that changes the game.

            In general, I have worked for people I found objectionable. For example, I have done free-lance work for political campaigns that I devoutly hoped would lose. I don’t feel I have to agree or approve of someone to work with them. They are entitled to their views, they need services to exercise their constitutionally-protected right to political action and their money spends as well as anyone’s. I personally draw the line at requiring people to work with those who are dangerous or publicly call for oppression.

            Thanks for the questions. They provided an interesting thought-exercise.

    • Is there any difference in the fact that skin color can’t be changed by will, but actions can? I’m not saying that discrimination is correct, but interpreting all religious based sins as discrimination is over-extension. Some religions do factor context (say one’s genetic/natural dispositions) into sin, some don’t. That may be a worthwhile question to explore in some news stories. Civil rights = SSM, at least to me, is more a talking point, or an angle for hidden journalistic bias, than it is a equitable point of comparison for both sides of the debate.

      However, I will certainly agree the meme civil rights = SSM is or has become the only way most people see the debate. The marginalized have become very good marginalizers.

      • Well, the best evidence is that sexual preference is not something that can be changed by will. It’s true that gay people can remain celibate, but so can straight people. I am uncomfortable putting restrictions on one group of people that others aren’t subject to based on an inborn trait. That is the essence of discrimination, to me. I know people feel differently, but I think they should be able to try to persuade others to their stance, not try to intimidate or use economic pressure.

        Also, I would argue that one’s religion can be changed “by will.” People convert from one religion to another far more often than they change their sexual preferences. There have already been calls to discriminate against Muslims in the US. They have been made by those on the extreme far-right, (Ann Coulter comes to mind,) and are not taken seriously, yet. They are against the first amendment. However, we interred many Japanese and a few Germans, and that was unconstitutional. With all this in mind, do you really want to go down the road of allowing discrimination based on traits that you can change? I think that’s a dangerous path.

        We have some extremists in congress now. Truthfully, we always have had them. If someone from one of these marginal groups, Westboro Baptist or the Church of Jesus Christ, Christian that I mentioned, gets elected to high office, do you really want to see the country debating weather or not Pagans, Jews or Muslims can be legally discriminated against or even deported, based on the idea that they can convert? That’s not a door I want opened.

        • gimpi1, I agree with your facts. I certainly agree that not acting on homosexual desires is equivalent to not acting on heterosexual desires. That’s why I pointed out such framing is required for balance, and that those people quoted in the article would need probed on that point to see if their stance is one-sided bigotry. However, I’m not sure what the journalistic angle is in your response? It seems like you’re saying journalists should cover discrimination stories based upon how things restrict expression of inborn traits?

          I am uncomfortable putting restrictions on one group of people that others aren’t subject to based on an inborn trait. That is the essence of discrimination, to me.

          That certainly can be a good way to frame a story. It may even be the best. It is also ironic. With this framing, avoidance of discrimination becomes the metric for what is and is not allowable. It has the functional role of sin – something wrong in all situations.

          From an individualistic paradigm, there is no question that almost all discrimination is wrong. Discrimination against inborn violent tendencies, strong hate tendencies, mild sociopathy, etc. may be exceptions. From a group paradigm, the answer is much more grey. Things that lower the group’s evolutionary fitness level have generally been selected for discriminative pressure. SSM may or may not be one of these. However something that lowers a group’s evolutionary fitness level by a couple of percent (% population not reproducing due to SS exclusivity) has a good chance of having some darwin machines associated with in. This is where the irony comes in. If group level selection is a natural trait, then the ingrained heuristics/darwin machines associated with its function are as “inborn” as SSM. What is one to do? Saying the only valid metric emerges from an individualistic paradigm is very dogmatic. There are deep natural tendencies at play on both sides of the fence. Saying the individualistic paradigm is the only permissible way to frame the argument reproduces the dynamics from which religious based ideas of sin emerge (wrong in all contexts). Please note, I’m not pushing the idea that the negative selective pressure of SSM is a valid reason to push for its oppression (society’s groups are to fluid, I don’t like oppression, and our society is not based on tribal survival).

          do you really want to see the country debating weather or not Pagans, Jews or Muslims can be legally discriminated against or even deported, based on the idea that they can convert?

          If you use a paradigm where discrimination against any inborn trait is not permissible, this argument remains ironic. If a percentage of the population is inborn with a discriminative tendency, which trait should be allowed? Ironically, you move to value based judgements like you state. When reporting news on value based competitions, shouldn’t all sides be allowed to voice the reasons behind their arbitrary points? We get the SSM side of this all the time in the news. We rarely get the libertarian side. Is a journalist really in error when they allow voice to the idea that absolute discrimination against discriminative tendencies can be taken too far? When taken too far you either have fascism or bigot land.

          Maybe the idea that allowing some expression of bigotry will result in epic purges is a bit of fear mongering? Whether it is justifiable or not is another question. However, it would seem a journalist is not necessarily out of order allowing the expression of tension within this debate. Failure to do so seems tantamount to accepting one side’s idea of non-exceptional “sin”. Tension in journalism is a good thing.

  7. I don’t really see how this is different from a Mormon baker pre-revelation arguing that interracial marriages were against his religion and that his business would discriminate based on the races of the couples in the wedding. Businesses who are open to the public must be open to everyone.

    • Businesses who are open to the public must be open to everyone.

      Exactly. That is the social contract we have as Americans. It wasn’t always that way, but we’ve come to that consensus as we reflected on principles in our founding documents.

  8. The stakes are a little lopsided here: The gay/lesbian couples are worried about “humiliation and embarrassment” while the Christian businesses are worried about violating their conscience and being forced to go against their religion. Given that both sides seem to have legitimate claims, which is worse?

  9. Appreciate your comments, folks, but the train seems to have run off the track.

    GetReligion is concerned about media coverage and journalistic issues. We’re not here to argue the merits of the cases, but rather to discuss the journalism. Please keep comments focused on that.

    • My guess is that until the off-the-track comments start getting spiked, your request will go unheeded.

      • My understanding is that the software doesn’t permit spiking. They can moderate, but that’s time consuming. At least we can see what a service the spike patrol gave us all these years.

        And I speak as one who had been spiked. 🙂

      • I agree with your comment in the piece that this story seems played down the middle. If that starts a trend, I think we can be pleased, because the issue probably will stay in front of the news for some time.

  10. Here’s an old story of a newspaper talking about a clash of the freedom of religion and civil rights (aka Bob Jones University barring interracial dating in 1980’s, but accepting single black students and black students married to non-whites). Will you have the equal gall to call it one-sided? I mean, just look at the title.,8629772&dq=religious+freedom+interracial+marriage&hl=en