Anti-discrimination Laws Don’t Burden Religious Freedom—They Secure It

Read our amicus brief for Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission here.

In cases around the country, business owners who are religiously opposed to marriage equality are suing for the right not to provide services like flowers, invitations, and cake to same-sex couples celebrating their wedding. Most notably, the Supreme Court will be deciding Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission this session—a case involving Jack Phillips, a Colorado bakery owner who violated that state’s antidiscrimination law by refusing to make a wedding cake for fiancées Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

These cases are framed specifically to pit LGBTQ rights against religious freedom in a way that is both oversimplified and misleading. Phillips’ brief complains that by requiring him to provide a wedding cake to same-sex couples, the state law provides “broader protection to LGBT consumers than to people of faith.” It’s true that in this circumstance, lower courts held that equality norms should take precedence over a business owner’s religious views. The larger reality, however, is that people of faith (some of whom are, of course, LGBTQ or LGBTQ-affirming) depend on rigorous and universal enforcement of antidiscrimination laws to protect and secure their religious freedom.

Religious freedom protections and antidiscrimination laws typically work together to ensure that people of all faiths are able to coexist in the public sphere. The Supreme Court’s most significant early free exercise cases drew a connection between the protection of religious liberty and principles of non-discrimination, grounding the standard of review for religious liberty claims in the standard honed in equal protection cases.  Even as the Court has adjusted the standard of review in constitutional free exercise cases, it has not abandoned the core equality principle that animated its earlier jurisprudence, retaining strict scrutiny for government action that is non-neutral with respect to particular religious beliefs, and describing it as a “nonpersecution principle.”

Allowing business owners to ignore antidiscrimination laws that conflict with their religious beliefs would threaten grave harms to people of faith, and especially to religious minorities. While federal and state civil rights laws law ban discrimination on the basis of religion, it is nevertheless pervasive. Claims of religiously-motivated discrimination—including the denial of public accommodations, employment, and housing as well as perpetration of hate crimes— have risen dramatically over the past decade. Discrimination is particularly severe for minority religious groups, and especially for Muslims. Over the past year, sixty percent of American Muslims have reported some level of religious discrimination. Over twenty percent of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) charges of religious discrimination in 2015 related to Muslims, despite their representing only one percent of the U.S. population.

If business owners were permitted to ignore antidiscrimination laws based on their personal religious beliefs, they could deny a range of goods and services to members of religious groups that they consider objectionable. For example, they might refuse to cater an interfaith or non-Christian wedding or to sell clothing to Muslim or Jewish women that embrace modesty values, based on a religious objection to their practices. This is not a merely theoretical concern: in recent cases, individuals from a hotel owner to a police officer have voiced religious objections to serving those of other faiths. In fact, Phillips’ own brief acknowledges that he would refuse to provide any goods that “promote atheism.”

Furthermore, any ruling for Masterpiece Cakeshop could not be easily contained to the public accommodations context, but would likely lead to religiously-motivated discrimination in employment and housing. Last year, a federal District Court held in EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes that a funeral home owner who objected on religious grounds to allowing a transgender woman employee to dress in skirts at work should be entitled to an exemption from federal sex discrimination law. This case is on appeal; however, a ruling for Masterpiece Cakeshop would open the door to similar claims against religious minorities. For example, such a ruling could allow employers to violate employment anti-discrimination law by refusing to hire employees who wear hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes, or other religious clothing. The employer could argue that he believes allowing employees to wear such garb at his workplace amounts to an endorsement of their religious practices, and therefore conflicts with his own religious faith.

Religious liberty and equality in the public sphere are both fundamental American values. In the vast majority of cases, anti-discrimination law protects both religious freedom and equality by ensuring that those of all faiths, including unpopular faiths, are able to work and participate in the public marketplace without facing discrimination from either the government or other citizens. The risks to religious freedom of allowing exemptions from anti-discrimination law would far outweigh any benefit to those with a religious opposition to marriage equality. Such exemptions threaten to decimate the protections for religious minorities that have long offered them some measure of defense from discrimination in their daily lives. As the U.S. becomes more religiously diverse, our commitment to religious plurality has become all the more essential. It should not yield to those who wish to serve, house, or employ only those who share their religious beliefs, on marriage or otherwise.