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Can Businesses Turn LGBT People Away Because of Who They Are? That’s Up to the Supreme Court Now.

Supreme Court with sun light
Supreme Court with sun light
James Esseks,
Director, LGBTQ & HIV Project,
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June 26, 2017

The United States Supreme Court just agreed to decide a case about whether a business can refuse to sell commercial goods to a gay couple because of the business owner’s religious beliefs. A win for the business could gut the nation’s civil rights laws, licensing discrimination not just against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, but against anyone protected by our non-discrimination rules.

In July 2012, Debbie Munn accompanied her son, Charlie Craig, and his fiancé, Dave Mullins, to the Masterpiece Cakeshop just outside of Denver to pick out a cake for their wedding reception. When the bakery’s owner heard that the cake was for two men, he said he wouldn’t sell them a cake because of his religious beliefs.

Debbie was stunned and humiliated for Charlie and Dave. As she has said, “It was never about the cake.” She couldn’t believe that a business would be allowed to turn people away because of who they are or whom they love. They might as well have posted a sign in the shop saying “No cakes for gays.”

The Colorado courts agreed with Debbie and ruled that the bakery’s refusal was unlawful and rejected the bakery’s request for a religious exemption from the state’s longstanding non-discrimination law.

By granting review in Charlie and Dave’s case, the Supreme Court has placed a spotlight on supposed tensions between equality and religious liberty. But the country has already found the right balance between these two important constitutional interests.

Under the Constitution, we each have the right to our own religious beliefs. We are empowered to act on those beliefs -- but not when our actions would harm others. That’s because religious freedom doesn’t give anyone the right to discriminate against or harm other people.

When businesses open their doors to the public, they must open them to everyone on the same terms, regardless of race, color, national origin, disability, or – under many state laws – sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Even when a business owner’s religious beliefs may motivate her to discriminate, that doesn’t justify an exemption from our civil rights laws. Providing commercial services, like selling cakes, doesn’t mean a business owner is endorsing anyone’s marriage. It simply means they are following the rules that apply to us all.

Demands for religious exemptions from civil rights laws are not new. In the past, businesses have repeatedly sought to pay women less than men because of a religious belief that men are “heads of household” and women should not work outside the home. Other businesses have refused service to people living with HIV because of a belief that they are sinful. Still others turned people away from restaurants because of their belief that they should not interact with people of a different race. The courts rightly rejected all of these claims for religious exemptions, despite the fact that they were based on deeply held beliefs.

There’s no reason that religious exemptions should be any more acceptable when it comes to turning people away because of religious beliefs about sexual orientation or gender identity. Courts across the country have agreed, including a decision from the Washington State Supreme Court in February.

The religious exemptions issue has gained prominence recently as civil rights protections for gay and transgender people have become more widespread. States have proposed laws that would license discrimination by businesses, government workers, adoption agencies, and counselors. Congress has considered similar measures. And President Trump has signed an executive order that signaled his intent to use religious exemptions to advance discrimination. But polling shows that both the American public and business owners themselves reject these overbroad exemptions and recognize them as discrimination.

Charlie’s mom was right: It’s not about the cake. Or the flowers. It’s about not being turned away from a business because of who you are. Religious freedom must be protected in America, but what’s going on here is pure discrimination.

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