SALT LAKE CITY — The Supreme Court’s wedding cake case may be over, but the battle over businesses refusing to serve gays and lesbians for religious reasons shows no signs of letting up.
This week, a coalition of LGBT rights activists launched the "Open to All" campaign, a national initiative aimed at ending discrimination against gay and lesbian customers. Participants place an "Open to All" window sign near the entrance to their business and add their pro-LGBT stance to other company information available online.
"No one should have to worry about whether they’ll be denied service," said Calla Rongerude, "Open to All" campaign manager, on a July 31 press call.
The initiative counters state legislative efforts to create new protections for business owners who object to same-sex marriage, said Ria Tabacco Mar, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. A recent Deseret News analysis showed that seven state legislatures have addressed religiously based service refusals so far this year.
Mar and other "Open to All" activists criticized the proposed bills, but a growing number of Americans support this type of legislation, according to a new survey from Public Religion Research Institute.
In 2017, 41 percent of U.S. adults said owners of wedding-related businesses, such as caterers, florists and bakers, should be allowed to refuse to serve same-sex couples if doing so violates their religious beliefs. Over the past year, that figure rose to 46 percent.
"It's not a huge movement, but it's notable," said Dan Cox, the institute’s research director.
Leaders of the "Open to All" campaign believe their initiative can reverse this shift in public sentiment. Major corporations like Yelp and Levi Strauss & Co., more than 1,200 small businesses, the cities of New York and Oakland and around 190 advocacy organizations have already signed on.
"When people experience businesses that are open to all, it’s good for business and it makes (customers) more likely to reach out to their legislators and express disapproval for the stigmatizing and demeaning bills we’ve seen introduced," Mar said.
Exploring the shift
Growing approval of religiously based service refusals contradicts many of Public Religion Research Institute’s other findings. In general, support for the LGBT community is on the rise, Cox said.
Today, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans favor same-sex marriage, compared with 55 percent in 2015, the survey reported. A strong majority of U.S. adults (71 percent) favor nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community.
The survey was conducted between June 27 and July 8 among 2,008 adults. The margin of error was 2.6 percentage points.
Researchers aren’t sure what's behind growing support for service refusals. The Supreme Court’s recent wedding cake ruling may have played a role, Cox said.
The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, pitted a Christian baker against an LGBT couple who had hoped to purchase a wedding cake from him. The Supreme Court was asked to decide what should happen when a religious objector to same-sex marriage violates a state LGBT nondiscrimination law.
In their June 4 ruling, the justices punted on the case’s central legal questions and sided with the baker because of anti-religion bias shown by the Colorado commission. The baker’s victory, although limited in scope, may have affected public opinion.
"It’s certainly possible, perhaps even probable," Cox said, noting that 2018 results may be a blip on the long-term trend line.
He’s more confident in his assertion that survey results can’t be pinned entirely on politics. The percent of Republicans who favor religiously based service refusals in the wedding industry did increase more over the past year than the percent of Democrats. But there were notable jumps in support among black and Hispanic Americans, which are historically liberal groups, Cox noted.
“There are a few moving parts here. We’re just starting to open the hood and see what’s going on,” he said.
White evangelical Protestants continue to show the strongest support among faith groups for business owners who refuse service based on their objection to same-sex marriage. Seventy percent say wedding-related business owners should be allowed to refuse service to LGBT couples, compared with 48 percent of white mainline Protestants and 49 percent of black Protestants, the survey reported.
The Supreme Court will likely hear another religiously based service refusal case in the next few years. Dozens of related lawsuits are playing out across the country, and, in June, the justices sent a lawsuit involving a Washington florist back to the lower courts for further review.
"Our fight for equal rights and dignity for all must continue," said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, on the "Open to All" press call.
One of the goals of the "Open to All" campaign is to encourage ongoing public engagement with this issue, organizers said. By involving business leaders, they hope to energize whole communities.
"We are leaders in our communities. We're emulated based on how we act," said Tia Agnew, a small-business owner in Indianapolis, on the press call.
Supporters of service refusals will also continue their defense of religious objectors to same-sex marriage. On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips and other religious freedom activists to announce a new Justice Department task force aimed at protecting people of faith.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents several small-business owners in lawsuits related to LGBT nondiscrimination laws, highlighted the importance of allowing service refusals in a statement.
"Too many of the clients ADF represents are risking their businesses, their life savings and their safety to follow their conscience," it read. "All Americans should be free to peacefully live and act consistent with their convictions and faith without threat of government punishment."
"Open to All" may also be able to draw attention to instances when gay and lesbian customers are turned away, which many Americans seem to miss. Public Religion Research Institute's survey showed that people are less likely to notice anti-LGBT discrimination today than they were in the past.
"Today, a majority (55 percent) of Americans believe gay and lesbian people experience a lot of discrimination in the U.S., a 13-point drop from 2013, when nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) Americans said the same," the survey reported.74 comments on this story
In some ways, life for the LGBT community has improved dramatically over the last five years, Cox noted. Same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide.
But that doesn't entirely explain the 13-point decline, he added. Some Americans have become less concerned about discrimination in many forms, leading to a drop in recognition of discrimination that affects women and immigrants, too.
"We're seeing people who think we've gone too far in accommodating these types of groups," Cox said, which also contributes to growing support for service refusals.