December 6, 2017

Masterpiece Cakeshop Case Could Have Implications for Atheists Too

We want white tenants
By Arthur S. Siegel - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID fsa.8d13572. Public Domain, Link


Should Denny's be able to refuse to serve Black customers? No? What if their reasons for doing so are rooted in the "deeply held religious beliefs" of those working there? Still no? Fair enough. Should a small family-owned carpet cleaning business in Mississippi be able to hang a "Christians only" sign near their front door and refuse to provide services to anyone failing to identify themselves as Christian? No? But but but...sincerely held religious beliefs! Still not convinced, huh?

As the Supreme Court wrestles with Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, we are reminded that many businesses would still very much like to be able to deny service to people on the basis of groups to which they belong (e.g., Black, non-Christian, LGBTQ). The case could end up setting an important legal precedent on whether businesses, large and small, are able to deny services to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. And I do not believe it is much of an exaggeration to say that there are many conservative Christians in the U.S. who would very much like to do just that.

Colorado has an anti-discrimination law on the books prohibiting businesses that serve the public from discriminating based on sexual orientation and many other factors. The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver turned away a gay couple. They alleged that this was illegal discrimination based on their sexual orientation; the owner, a conservative Christian, claimed that "he could not in good conscience create a wedding cake that celebrates their marriage." That is, he's arguing that his "religious freedom" allows him to do this. The Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled against the owner, noting that this was a violation of the anti-discrimination law and that he had no right to refuse to serve the couple on the basis of their sexual orientation. After a Colorado court affirmed this decision, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

I haven't had nearly as much time to follow this case as I'd like, but that doesn't mean I haven't taken an interest in it. As an atheist living in a small town in Mississippi, it is fairly easy to see how this ruling could end up affecting me. According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State,
The bakery is seeking a right to use religion as a vehicle to discriminate. If the court rules in its favor, that could create a huge loophole in the nation’s civil rights laws. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for-profit businesses are expected to serve members of the public equally without regard to race, religion or national origin.
If the court were to rule in favor of the baker, it would seem to undermine existing civil rights law and open the door to legal discrimination on the basis of conservative Christian beliefs. I find that to be a scary prospect. Here's what Americans United says about what could happen if the court rules the wrong way on this one:
Members of the LGBTQ community, single mothers, non-believers, non-Christians and a host of others could find themselves excluded from stores, shops and businesses because they don’t conform to the dictates of a business owner’s personal theology.
In other words, many of us living in regions dominated by evangelical fundamentalist Christians could be adversely impacted. The common advice of just taking one's business elsewhere does not apply unless there are businesses available that are willing to serve us.