After six years and hundreds of celebratory confections, it wasn’t the economy, the stiff competition, financing, or any of the other usual road bumps of building a new business that caused Sweet Cakes by Melissa—a husband-and-wife bakery in Portland, Oregon area—to close its doors at the end of the summer.
Instead, it was the nationwide battle over same-sex marriage.
In January, co-owner Aaron Klein had denied a request to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding. “The Bible tells us to flee from sin,” his wife and business namesake, Melissa Klein told a Fox News columnist recently. “I don’t think making a cake for it helps. Protests, boycotts, and a storm of media attention—much of it negative—ensued. The couple received death threats. Then, activists broadened the boycott: any wedding vendor that did business with Sweet Cakes would be targeted.
The final nail in the coffin came in August when the slighted lesbian couple filed an anti-discrimination suit with the state. “The LGBT attacks are the reason we are shutting down the shop. They have killed our business through mob tactics,” Klein said. His wife added: “I guess in my mind I thought we lived in a lot nicer of a world where everybody tolerated everybody.”
Christian Wedding Vendors Under Attack
In 2006, a noted advocate for traditional marriage, Maggie Gallagher, warned that the legalization of same-sex marriage would lead to constraints on religious freedom. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Gallagher saw the end of adoptions services by Boston Catholic Charities as a foreshadowing of things to come. (To retain its license, Gallagher explained, the agency would have to abide by the state’s anti-discrimination law, which had been extended to married same-sex couples.) She couched her warning in the form of a question:
This March, then, unexpectedly, a mere two years after the introduction of gay marriage in America, a number of latent concerns about the impact of this innovation on religious freedom ceased to be theoretical. How could Adam and Steve’s marriage possibly hurt anyone else? When religious-right leaders prophesy negative consequences from gay marriage, they are often seen as overwrought. The First Amendment, we are told, will protect religious groups from persecution for their views about marriage. So who is right? Is the fate of Catholic Charities of Boston an aberration or a sign of things to come?
Seven years later, we have the answer: as of this writing, there have been at least 11 instances of wedding vendors and venues facing some form of recrimination—threats, boycotts, protests, and the intervention of state or judicial authorities—because they denied services for gay nuptials because of their faith. Besides Sweet Cakes by Melissa, they are:
■ Masterpiece Cakeshop, Colorado: Owner Jack Phillips refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple in July. The Lakewood bakery has faced at least two protests, a Facebook-driven boycott, and a discrimination complaint from the state Attorney General that was scheduled for a hearing in September. Phillips has said he would rather close his bakeshop than compromise his Christian beliefs. (Sources: news reports including Washington Times and Huffington Post.)
■ Victoria’s Cake Cottage, Iowa: Baker Victoria Childress denied service to a lesbian couple hoping to get married in 2011. The Des Moines baker was called a “bigot” and faced a protest and Facebook boycott but refused to budge, citing her Christian faith. (Sources: news reports including Washington Times and Huffington Post.)
■ Fleur Cakes, Oregon: Pam Regentin, the owner of the Mount Hood-area cake shop, refused to make a cake for a lesbian couple earlier this year, sparking another Facebook boycott in May. (Sources: news reports including local television.)
■ Liberty Ridge Farm, New York: The family-owned farm in mid-state New York is facing a human rights complaint after refusing to host a lesbian wedding in 2012. (Sources: local news sources here and here and the Huffington Post.)
■ All Occasion Party Place, Texas: In February, the Fort Worth-based wedding venue declined to host a wedding reception for a gay couple. An online boycott has now been launched against the business. (Sources: local news and the Huffington Post.)
■ Gortz Haus, Iowa: After refusing to host a gay wedding (reported in August), Betty Odgaard, the owner of the business, received threatening calls and e-mails and now must contend with a complaint the couple has filed with the state civil rights commission. (Sources: local news sources here and here and the Huffington Post.)
■ Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, New Jersey: In 2012, a state judge ruled that a Methodist-owned events venue in Ocean Grove violated state law when it refused to host a gay wedding in 2007. Also, while the discrimination case was still pending, the facility lost its state tax exemption because it was deemed “no longer met the requirements as a place open to all members of the public,” the New York Times reported. (Sources: The New York Times here and here, Philadelphia Inquirer, and LifeSiteNews.)
■ Elane Photography, New Mexico: The state Supreme Court ruled in August that a New Mexico photography business owned by Elaine Huguenin and her husband Jon could not legally deny services to same-sex couples. The photographer had refused service for a lesbian commitment ceremony in 2006. One of the women had filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission, which ruled against the photographers in 2008, prompting an appeals process that led to the high court decision. It’s now unclear what will happen to the business. (Sources: press releases and news reports including the Catholic News Agency and the Santa Fe New Mexican. The case is discussed further below.)
■ Arlene’s Flowers, Washington: A florist refused to provide flowers to a gay wedding last March and now owner Baronelle Stutzman is facing a lawsuit from the state Attorney General. (Sources: news reports including local television and the Associated Press.)
■ Wildflower Inn, Vermont: A lesbian couple sued the Wildflower Inn under the state public accommodations law in 2011 after being told they could not have their wedding reception there. The owners were reportedly open to holding same-sex ceremonies as long as customers were notified that the events personally violated their Catholic faith. It wasn’t enough. The inn had to settle the case in 2012, paying a $10,000 fine and putting double that amount in a charitable trust. Also, the inn is no longer hosting weddings, although the decision reportedly was made before the settlement. (Sources: The New York Times and Huffington Post.)
These cases represent a new battlefield in the clash between the freedoms of Christians and the “radical homosexual agenda,” said Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of The Thomas Moore Law Center. “Despite their relatively small numbers, radical homosexuals wield enormous power. They dominate our cultural elite, Hollywood, television, the mainstream news media, public schools, academia, and a significant portion of the judiciary,” Thompson said in an e-mail interview. “As a result of their power, homosexual activists are able to intimidate and silence opposition.”
Such fundamental clashes are linked to the spreading legalization of same-sex marriage. Of the 11 total cases cited above, three occurred within two years of their state legalizing same-sex marriage. A fourth came four years afterwards. Four others were in states that did not have same-sex marriage but had granted some legal recognition to same-sex unions, such as domestic partnerships or civil unions. “When you start recognizing same-sex marriage, these cases are going to start coming up,” said Jim Campbell, an Alliance for Defense attorney involved in the New Mexico case.
The legalization of same-sex marriage has created new opportunities for Christian business owners to run afoul of longstanding anti-discrimination laws, according to Campbell. But same-sex marriage is not only creating the opportunity—it’s also affecting how those laws are interpreted, Campbell said.
Such laws ban discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation,” an ambiguous term that could refer either to the sexual attraction and self-identification of individuals or their behavior, according to Peter Sprigg, Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council. Christian conservatives, he says, draw a distinction between an individual and his behavior. “To disapprove of homosexual relationships … is something quite different from discrimination against an individual on the basis of sexual orientation,” he said.
The line between the dignity of a person and their behavior, however, is being blurred by the Left, according to Sprigg, enabling it to wield anti-discrimination laws against Christian conservatives who are, in fact, not discriminating against individuals. As Denver baker Jack Phillips to his local CBS affiliate, “If gays come in and want to order birthday cakes or any cakes for any occasion, graduations, or whatever, I have no prejudice against that whatsoever.”
Sexual Liberty Before Religious Liberty
In refusing to participate in gay weddings, Christian business owners have invoked their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. As the Iowa wedding venue owner asked, “Can I have my beliefs without being ostracized for that?”
Across the country, judges are answering in the negative. In ruling against the Methodist-owned Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a state judge declared that the Constitution allows “some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals.” In other words, religious liberty has been shoved aside to serve a higher priority—sexual liberty, Sprigg says.
For the Founding Fathers, however, it was religious freedom that took precedent over societal goals, Thompson says. “Man’s duty of honoring God is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of civil society,” James Madison, the Framer of the Constitution, wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment). Likewise, Thomas Jefferson declared: “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”
“Without a narrow exemption allowed for faithful Catholics and other Christians, there is not the concern but the reality that the state is forcing Catholics and Christians to violate their faith,” said Thompson, a Catholic convert. “Society is attempting to force Catholics to violate their God–given, constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion and conscience. The very institution of the Church is being challenged and the laws that are supposed to protect our religious freedom are now being crafted to weaken and destroy that freedom.”
“The Price of Citizenship”
It’s not just the hierarchy of rights that is being inverted. It’s also the scope of the various rights that are in conflict with each other: as the right to sexual liberty has expanded, the scope of religious liberty has correspondingly narrowed.
In challenging the Colorado baker, the national ACLU said in a statement that his business was an inappropriate forum to air his religious beliefs: “[T]heir business is not a house of worship. Colorado law allows members of the clergy to decide whom they will join in a marriage or civil union—and that’s consistent with the principles of religious liberty our nation was founded on. While bakery owners are free to practice their faith and to personally oppose same-sex marriage, they cannot use those beliefs as an excuse to disrespect and discriminate against customers.”
New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Bosson agreed. In his ominously worded concurring opinion against the wedding photographers he described limitations on religious freedom as a necessary compromise in a pluralistic democracy—in his words “the price of citizenship”:
On a larger scale, this case provokes reflection on what this nation is all about, its promise of fairness, liberty, equality of opportunity, and justice. At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less. The Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life.
In the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people. That sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world. In short, I would say to the Huguenins, with the utmost respect: it is the price of citizenship. I therefore concur.
Campbell called the opinion a “wake-up call” to Christians around the country. “If you want to be a citizen and you want to be a business owner, don’t bring your beliefs,” he said.
In other words: Christians are free to exercise their religion only within the confines of their home or church, but as soon as they leave, they must subordinate those beliefs to the dictates of the anti-discrimination laws, according to Sprigg. “I call it the ‘four-walled’ freedom,” he said.
But religious freedom is not a narrow concept, Thompson says. “It is the ability to live out one’s faith in all aspects of life—which includes earning a livelihood. A wedding vendor should not be forced to check his Christianity at the door, and act in violation of his faith while trying to earn his livelihood,” Thompson said.
Tolerance Before Freedom of Speech
It’s not just religious freedom that is threatened, it’s also freedom of speech, Campbell said.
Before the state Supreme Court, the defense attorneys had argued that “photography is an expressive art form and that photography can fall within the constitutional protections of free speech,” according to the court’s summary. “Elane Photography also states that in the course of its business, it creates and edits photographs for its clients so as to tell a positive story about each wedding it photographs, and the company and its owners would prefer not to send a positive message about same-sex weddings or same-sex marriage.”
Requiring them to photograph such weddings, is “forced speech,” Campbell said. That should concern everyone, according to Campbell. Today, it might be a photographer asked to document a gay or lesbian wedding. Tomorrow, it could be a lesbian or gay photographer asked to shoot a traditional marriage rally against their convictions, he said.
“That’s the antithesis of what the Founders created in the Constitution,” Campbell said.
It’s also the antithesis of what modern liberals supposedly believe. “Tolerance is permitting opinions and practices that differ from one’s own. It is an act of intolerance to force individuals to do something against their deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs. It is no more or less complicated than this,” Thompson
What the Future Holds
It’s unclear if the wedding photography business owned by Elaine Huguenin and her husband Jon will go the way of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Oregon. One option is to stop doing weddings. There is also the possibility of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court—which Thompson estimates would have a better than the usual one to two-percent chance of getting accepted.
So far, no judge has yet to rule in favor of a vendor who denied services to a same-sex couple on the basis of their faith. That leaves Christian business owners with no easy choices. “Currently Christian vendors are being forced to either 1) violate their religious views or 2) choose a different profession,” Thompson wrote. The upshot of it all, he said, is that faithful Christians eventually could be forced out of the wedding business.
The bigger question is what this all means, more broadly, for faith in public life. If other Christians in the United States are wondering what the future holds, they have to look no further than Europe. In Ireland, a Christian printer’s refusal to publish a gay magazine has landed him in court. In Scotland, a Presbyterian church group was turned away from a hotel because of its views on same-sex marriage. And, in France, a mayor is facing five years in prison because he wouldn’t perform a gay wedding.
If Europe is to be any guide, religious freedom may not even be safe within the ‘four walls’ of a church: in August, a gay couple announced they were mounting a legal challenge against a state law that allows British churches to opt out of holding gay weddings.
As Christians in the United State wonder on what these cases might mean for them, they would do well to reflect on a letter that a bishop recently issued to his diocese, after losing that state’s battle over marriage. The letter is addressed by Bishop Thomas Tobin to Rhode Island Catholics, but his words speak to Christians across the country: “Without a doubt this is a time of challenge, even disappointment for many of us, but it is also an opportunity to be steadfast and courageous, and to renew our commitment to Christ and His Church. As our Lord Jesus Christ told us, ‘In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world’ (Jn 16:33).”