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Jenet and Michael Erickson: Stereotypes threaten religious liberty; we must engage with complexity

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

As same-sex marriages become more prevalent, so do conflicts with religious liberty.

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As same-sex marriages become more prevalent, so do conflicts with religious liberty. Just one example is the case against Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker, who declined to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Attention-seeking headlines imply that Phillips, a Christian, refuses to serve gay couples (“Hearing bakers refusal to serve gay couple”, Denver Post, May 30). But there’s more to the story than is often told.

Phillips regularly makes birthday cakes for a lesbian couple and has hired gay employees. His daughter told an AP reporter that he never had any problem with her and her siblings’ gay friends (“How a wedding cake became a cause,” April 5). When he declines to make a same-sex wedding cake, he immediately offers to make one for any other occasion, such as a birthday or shower. Phillips does not object to serving gay people or gay couples. But he feels compelled by conscience not to participate in same-sex weddings.

As Phillips’ attorney put it, “Jack serves everyone, but he does not serve all events.” In addition to same-sex weddings, Phillips does not make cakes for Halloween or bachelor parties either. As a columnist for the Economist writes, there is a “crucial difference between refusing to do business with someone simply because he is gay and refusing ... to play a part in a marriage ceremony that violates one’s own dearly-held religious convictions about the function and meaning of marriage.”

But the judge who ruled against Phillips last December called that “a distinction without a difference.” And last week, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission affirmed the judge’s decision and ordered Phillips to “cease and desist from discriminating,” to provide “comprehensive staff training,” and to file quarterly “compliance” reports. Business owners have been punished in other states for similar wedding-related services, including Cynthia Gifford (NY) for declining to rent her farm for a wedding (“Lesbian couple appeals to state panel after being denied wedding,” CBS New York, Nov. 6, 2013), and Elaine Huguenin (NM) for declining to photograph a commitment ceremony (“Protecting freedom of speech,” March 21).

Many religious supporters of traditional marriage might not object to providing services for same-sex weddings. But why would Phillips’ religious concerns be dismissed so casually, especially when he did not refuse service to anyone, but rather an event? One explanation is that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission simply did not believe his explanation, relying instead on popular stereotypes that misrepresent religious beliefs about marriage as bigotry, homophobia or hatred.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Lippmann coined today’s meaning of “stereotype” in his 1922 study “Public Opinion.” Because the modern world is “altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance,” we form stereotypes “to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it.” The less familiar we are with the subject matter, the more we rely on stereotypes to fill in the gap.

Regrettably, religious faith is popularly portrayed in simple, often negative, stereotypes. And the result is a segregated culture that is intolerant of religiously motivated conduct in the public square. As such, religious liberty, our “first freedom,” is now being subordinated to an inferior status among civil rights (“Hope for the Years Ahead,” Mormon Newsroom, April 16). And, increasingly, believers are afraid to act on their beliefs in public.

In recent years, media stories have shown that feelings of same-gender attraction are not entirely a choice, but instead a complex reality for many people. The result is a cultural climate that is more accepting and loving of men and women who experience such attractions.

What we need now are stories showing the complex reality that religious believers can affirm the equality and dignity of gays and lesbians while conscientiously electing not to endorse same-sex marriages. We need more authentic stories about the religious ministers who lovingly serve their gay and lesbian congregants without judgment; the same-sex attracted men and women who adhere to religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman, like those found at www.ldsvoicesofhope.org; the children of same-sex couples who insist that every child is entitled to both a father and mother (“Growing Up With Two Moms,” Public Discourse, August 6, 2012), and the business owners who treat their customers equally while respectfully declining to participate in or endorse events contrary to their beliefs (“How a wedding cake became a cause,” April 6).

It will not be easy for journalists to tell these stories, but it is vital. In his other classic work “Liberty and the News,” Lippmann wrote: “In so far as those who purvey the news make of their own beliefs a higher law than truth, they are attacking the foundations of our constitutional system. There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

In our pluralistic society, toleration must not become a one-way street. Conscientious objections to activities contrary to religious beliefs are entitled to respect and toleration. Business owners who decline to provide services for same-sex weddings do not discriminate against gays and lesbians any more than physicians or pharmacists who decline to provide abortions discriminate against women.

Wedding cakes may seem trivial, but in the future, religious charities, universities, and churches will be challenged over their religious objections to same-sex marriages. It will require much work to replace popular stereotypes with genuine expressions of religious beliefs about marriage. But our religious freedoms depend upon it.

Michael Erickson is an attorney. Jenet Erickson is family science researcher. They live in Salt Lake City.

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