Monday, June 4, 2018

A few thoughts on the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision

I haven't had the time today to read as much as I would like on the Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. As you know, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. But some conservative commenters are counseling caution; the decision was narrow in its scope, and does not address many potential conflicts that may yet arise between religious believers and LGBTQ citizens. Other commenters are more hopeful; I admit that I am, too, because it seems like this is the first time in a long time that a government body has recognized that a religious belief in the definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and only that kind of union, simply cannot be dismissed as a kind of irrational animus against gay people, but may even be the kind of belief that must be given equal respect to the belief that the definition of marriage is infinitely malleable.

I have no expertise in the law whatsoever and will avoid commenting on the legal issues. I don't have any particular expertise as a Catholic, either, as I'm a lay woman of average religious education, but I do know what the Church teaches when it comes to people who are attracted to their own sex. Here's what the Catechism has to say on the subject:
Chastity and homosexuality
2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
I think in the light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, it might be a good idea to look at that phrase, "unjust discrimination," and talk about what it does, and doesn't, mean.

Human beings in general have certain basic rights, and they don't lose those basic rights just because they are sinners (since we are all sinners). Even if they are obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin they still have the right to food, clothing, and shelter, and to access to essential medical care. They have a corresponding right to attempt to find work to help them meet these needs, and should not, generally speaking, be barred from employment for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to do the work. In a just society their basic needs should be met even if they are unable to work at all due to disability or for some other just cause.

However, when it comes down to the details, there are limits to the way those rights can be exercised. A starving man who has no way to buy food or obtain it legally from charities, etc., may not sin if he steals what he needs, but grocery stores are not obliged to hand out all their food for free. A person who has been in an accident must be treated at the nearest hospital regardless of his ability to pay, but somebody still has to pay the doctors and the nurses; they cannot be compelled to work for free (though many medical professionals do generously volunteer to help those who have no way to pay). A landlord cannot in general turn away a potential tenant because he discriminates against people of a certain ethnic or religious background, but a potential renter cannot claim discrimination if he cannot meet the rental requirements in terms of deposit and credit rating. In other words, there is always a balance, even when we are talking about basic, essential human needs.

A person who identifies as gay and lives a gay lifestyle should not be barred from exercising his basic, fundamental human rights. A grocery store that refused to sell food to gay people would be acting unjustly; a restaurant that refused to serve gay people would also be acting unjustly, and the same is true for the other basic needs. Regardless of what the law would say about such a situation, I think it should be obvious that the Catholic Church would view such an act as a sinful act of unjust discrimination.

So what makes the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision different? Why should religious liberty make it okay not to sell a gay couple a cake for a gay wedding?

In the first place, nobody has a fundamental human right to buy a wedding cake. In addition, the right to practice one's religion in the public square does sometimes include the right to refuse to participate in someone else's acts or events if those acts or events are at odds with one's religion. Catholics, as well as other Christians, do not believe that it is even possible for two men or two women to be "married" in any real sense that does not make total nonsense of the word "marriage." For someone like Jack Phillips to be forced to use his considerable artistic and culinary skills to create a custom wedding cake for the celebration of something which he does not believe to be a wedding is an unjust violation of his right to exercise his religion freely.

Finally, Mr. Phillips has sold and says he will always sell regular baked goods to gay couples, including cookies or birthday cakes. This, to me, strikes exactly the right balance: he is not unjustly discriminating against gay people, to whom he will sell most of his confections; but he will not design and create a custom wedding cake for an event which his faith forbids him to think of as a wedding at all. And he shouldn't have to.

I have read concerned opinions from LGBT people about how this ruling makes them fearful that Christians will try to deny them various goods and services. I would tell them not to worry. The Christian tire shop owner will still sell you tires; the Catholic lady who owns a coffee shop will be glad to sell you coffee. It's only when you try to force Christians to accept the redefinition of marriage that our rights and your wishes may collide.

The reason religious liberty is important, though, is because it goes far beyond questions of LGBT people and marriage; it goes way beyond Christian beliefs, too. Should the Muslim girl working at a big-box grocery store be forced to remove her hijab lest people are offended by it? Should the Jewish deli owner have to cater a white supremacist rally? If saying "no" to a customer is always discrimination and bigotry, does that mean that owners, employers, and employees have no rights?

Today's decision makes me hopeful that common sense and a desire for balance are coming back into fashion. We can only hope. And I am hopeful that my fellow Christians will see this as an opportunity to reiterate to the LGBT community: we do not hate you. We cannot accept certain aspects of your lifestyle and we reject the redefinition of marriage, and we understand that you don't agree with us on this. But if you are experiencing actual and unjust discrimination in terms of the basics of life, we will help you as we would help anyone in that kind of situation.