The United States Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop versus the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. At issue is whether a baker can refuse services to a same-sex couple to avoid violating his religious beliefs. Jack Phillips, owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop, told a same-sex couple that he would not make the wedding cake they were requesting. Lower courts had sided with the couple which caused Phillips to quit making wedding cakes altogether rather than violate his religious convictions.
I caught a short audio recording of the oral arguments on the Internet that compelled me to search for the entire transcript. The line of questioning by some of the justices was somewhat disturbing to me. Somehow I would have expected them to be more insightful. To illustrate, allow me to relate an ongoing debate that took place in our small town.
Several years ago, our town council passed an animal ordinance that pretty much eliminated harboring any domesticated animals except dogs and cats, and they had to be licensed and contained. The ordinance passed at the recommendation of one particular board member without much public debate at the time. This past year, a family whose daughters were in 4H, kept a few chickens in their backyard pen, barely visible to any of the neighbors. One particular neighbor who happened to be instrumental in the passing of the original ordinance raised a fuss to have the chickens removed. Most everyone else in town came to the defense of the girls and their chickens. A petition with the signatures of more than 300 area residents urged the town council to revise the ordinance, which they eventually did after several months where the chicken debate dominated council meetings.
During the seemingly endless chicken discussions, the few who were opposed came up with some ridiculous scenarios on what could happen if someone in town were allowed to have a few chickens. One heard of a person who died from some obscure disease supposedly passed by a chicken. Another envisioned the horrible sanitary conditions that would exist if everyone on her street had chickens. And what about all the clucking? The point being that certain people who are stubbornly attached to a personal agenda will create unreasonable arguments to stonewall any opposition.
The questioning by some of the justices appeared to indicate they were looking for an excuse to rule according to their personal belief rather than what the law required. Justice Sotomeyer brought up racial discrimination or discrimination against the disabled. She mentioned “the gay couple who was left on the side of the highway on a rainy night, people who have been denied medical treatment or whose children have been denied medical treatment because the doctor didn't believe in same-sex parenthood, et cetera.”
Justice Kennedy was concerned about the dignity of same-sex couples, that the denial of services could be an “affront to the gay community.” Justice Kagan paints this as a possible exemption from anti-discrimination laws, wondering if it would also apply to jewelers, makeup artists, or hairstylists. Where do they draw the line? There seemed a reluctance to acknowledge the reality that lines need to exist.
I have a question for the justices. What about a baker being asked to create a cake celebrating an incestuous relationship, or a KKK party, or a Planned Parenthood Clinic’s 10,000th abortion? Shouldn’t a baker have the right to say the message conflicts with my moral code of conduct and I cannot in good conscience provide this service?
The question of where to draw the line would be clearer if the court understood the religious implications of cooperating or being complicit in the actions of another. Our personal conduct has an impact on the conduct of others. We lead by our own example. When our bad behavior leads another to bad behavior, we bear some responsibility for the other person’s bad behavior. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it the sin of scandal. Morality deteriorates in our society when sordid behaviors become tolerated because normally respected people are seen doing them.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.
2285 Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing.
2286 Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion. Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to "social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible." This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger, or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.
In the case of a businessman who holds certain behaviors to be immoral, and who also may hold a position of influence in his faith community, he commits the sin of scandal when his apparent approval by cooperation causes others to compromise their own moral conscience based on his complicity. Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, Jack Phillips cannot contribute to the celebration of an action he knows is immoral in violation of his own conscience. The denial of service is not done out of hatred, but rather love and concern for the spiritual well-being of the faithful, and in this particular case, the two men involved.
If we are to have true religious freedom protected under the law, the real question in this case would be deciding whether attempting to mate two males could reasonably be considered problematic from a religious viewpoint. In my mind, the answer is obvious. Of course it can, and it is. Laws should never force someone to commit sinful behavior. One who refuses military service on religious grounds is a conscientious objector. What baker Jack Phillips is doing is essentially the same thing.
Now, a federal judge has ruled that the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Transit Authority has the right to ban religious-themed Christmas advertisements. The Transit Authority rejected an ad sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington promoting its annual “Find the Perfect Gift” program that displayed shepherds and sheep following a star.