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CRAMER: A supposed victory for religious freedom, a failure for Christianity

• Jun 6, 2018 at 4:30 PM

In a surprise decision this past Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple’s marriage. Many Supreme Court watchers were surprised by this ruling, particularly given the court’s recent decision fully to recognize same-sex marriage.

From a legal standpoint, though, this was a difficult case to decide. As the ruling notes, there are two competing goods being weighed, “The first is the authority of a State and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services. The second is the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment.”

Their decision to rule in favor of the baker seems to have been upon the court’s belief that the government had exhibited hostility to sincerely held religious belief instead of the principal of neutrality. Specifically, the problem was not that the Civil Rights Commission in Colorado rejected his arguments, but rather that the commission did not give the baker a fair and impartial hearing.

Thus, it’s important to be clear about what this decision means. The court did not rule specifically on the question of whether a Christian business owner can refuse goods or services to a same-sex couple. Rather, they found that the government had not acted fairly with regard to religion as they adjudicated this case. As the court also noted in their opinion, in the future “these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

Given the facts of the case, and the argument in the court’s decision, I do not believe this decision will provide a precedent to future business owners who wish to deny services or goods based on their own religious beliefs. What it should do is ensure that when these disputes take place, the government is careful to be neutral with regard to religious beliefs and not single out one person.

All that said, I believe this case, and the continuing controversy which surrounds it and others like it, is a profound failure for Christianity.

First off, every time the news media talks about a Christian baker refusing service to a same-sex couple, there is no qualifier. That is, the assumption is that it is the baker’s Christianity that resulted in his decision — with no real recognition that there are now many Christians who actually support same-sex marriage.

A 2017 Pew Forum poll indicates that more than half of religious Americans now support same-sex marriage. The only two religious groups that do not have majority support are white evangelicals and Mormons. But even then, the statistics are telling. Twice as many young white evangelicals (53 percent) now support same-sex marriage compared with those who are over 65 (25 percent). Furthermore, 60 percent of Americans (including 53 percent of white evangelicals), no matter their own personal religious beliefs, oppose the idea that a business owner like the baker in Colorado can deny services based on that business owner’s religious beliefs.

So, the decision of this baker and the minority of Christians who support him continues to perpetuate a falsehood about Christianity. There are wide swaths of Christians who support same-sex marriage. There are whole denominations — my own, the Episcopal Church, included — which actually have full sacramental marriage equality. Our voice is often ignored in these conversations. If this couple were members of my church, their own free exercise of religion as Episcopalians seeking to get married and have access to public goods and services would be infringed upon by this baker’s actions.

But the second issue, for me, is far graver. And here I speak to my sisters and brothers who support this baker, those who may still believe gay marriage is a sin.

When Jesus walked this earth, the religious reviled him for his willingness to associate with sinners. They called him a drunkard and a glutton. All of the Gospels witness to the open hostility religion exhibited to God when God walked among us, loving and dining and embracing saints and scoundrels alike. It was this hostility, this offense, which killed Jesus.

For Christianity to be in the news once again because of the refusal of its conservative members to extend kindness to those with whom they disagree, this is a stain upon the church for which Christ died. And, because I doubt any bakers have refused to make cakes for divorced couples who are remarrying (even though Christ actually spoke about that issue), the hypocrisy and homophobic bias in these actions is astounding and heartbreaking.

The presiding bishop of my church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, preached a powerful sermon at the Royal Wedding last month. In it, he invited each of us to a love like that exhibited in Jesus Christ — a love that does not cling to supposed rights but is always willing to give up for the other. As Bishop Curry said, “Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, we can do better than we have done. Let’s put down our swords and shields. Let’s walk away from the culture wars. Let’s start inviting people into changed and transformed lives, but not by bringing the power of the State or of vicious rhetoric to bear on our divisions. Instead, let’s start inviting people — let’s start inviting ourselves — into changed and transformed lives by loving people the way Jesus loved them.

— The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.stjohnsepiscopal.com.

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