The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and will decide whether businesses run by religious objectors to gay marriage may refuse to cater a gay wedding. The constitutional question concerns the relation between an evangelical baker’s freedom to exercise his religion and how that freedom is limited by the public’s interest in non-discrimination against certain minorities. There is also the question of whether a corporation—closely or distantly held—has the same free-exercise rights as the folks administering it. Important questions all. But the Court’s answers to them—certain to invoke all manner of reasonable burdens, legitimate functions, public accommodations, and protected classes—will be determined by a question likely to remain implicit during oral arguments: Is religion more or less important than marriage?
To see why this basic question should orient your thinking about the Colorado baker case, imagine the event in question occurring in a fictional village. You can think of such a place, kind of bucolic, filled with norms about what to do and what not to do, and pleasantly bereft of lawyers. Picture the same gay couple walking into the same Christian’s flower shop, and requesting carnations in celebration of their union. And the florist says no. I’m Christian, he says. What does that matter, queries the couple. Well, I object to what you’re doing, the owner says. That’s vile, retorts the couple, we just want to marry, the same as you. No, you want something totally different, and I might add, sinful, says the owner.
And this exchange, totally imaginable—perhaps some version of it has occurred in these very United States, between people who couldn’t tell John Roberts from the Dread Pirate Roberts—must, when it occurs between two private parties, quickly devolve into an argument about whose need trumps whose: the couple’s need for the florist’s services, or the florist’s need to obey his conscience.
The question cannot be answered simply by saying the couple can go elsewhere to buy flowers—and not because a florist is a “public charter,” which must submit to paradigmatically public demands about catering equally to the whole community. The florist’s business is a public charter, but so what? We need to ask what demands the community should make upon those whose behavior it purports to regulate, formally or informally. For instance, I’d say a gun dealer shouldn’t be allowed to sell guns to a mentally unstable person, even if the would-be buyer can pay. Why? Because he might hurt someone, and, to quote Manfred the mammoth from the movie Ice Age, part of what you do in a herd is look out for each other. If the unstable gun-buyer question troubles you, then you realize that you must decide what is reasonable or unreasonable, burdensome or not, based on a prior calculation about what’s important, about what society is most essentially for. If what society really is for, ultimately, is making sure everyone can shop as he likes, then the gun dealer has to sell. If not, then he doesn’t have to sell, because there’s something more important to defend, like people’s safety against the armed unwell.
The florist thinks what society is most essentially for is his religion. The couple thinks what society is most essentially for is its marriage. The question is, which of them is correct?
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SOURCE: First Things