On the freedom to discriminate

The resurfacing of a Jan. 2013 story about an Oregon bakery refusing to serve gay couples is a reminder that freedom of religion should never trump nondiscrimination laws. Sweet Cakes by Melissa prides itself in creating custom wedding and special-event cakes. Bakery owner Aaron Klein told NBC News that when a potential customer wanted a wedding cake for “two brides,” he politely told the woman that the bakery does not serve gay couples.

The Klein family is facing a fine of $150,000 in violation of the Oregon Equality Act of 2007. This act specifies the illegality of discrimination based on multiple characteristics––including sexual orientation––in places of public accommodation.

The bakery owners claim they acted on a religious right, as some Christians believe gay marriage is a sin. There comes a time, however, when the line between freedom of religion and purposeful discrimination is crossed.

Freedom of religion exists for people to openly express and practice their beliefs. This freedom, however, does not allow the practicing of beliefs against other people––especially when other people do not share those same beliefs. When practicing one’s religion directly affects an outside person in a discriminatory way, religious freedom no longer applies.

In a similar situation, Chick-fil-A chief executive officer Dan Cathy expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage in the summer of 2012. Cathy, however, never implemented any anti-gay policies in the company. He used his freedom of religion to express his opinion but did not act upon it; he did not use it as an excuse to refuse gay customers. To do so would be an unlawful, discriminatory act such as what occurred at Sweet Cakes.

The Oregon Equality Act also prohibits discrimination based on religion. One may argue that fining the Kleins for practicing their religious policies is religious discrimination. That is not the case. No governing body can prohibit the Kleins from opposing gay marriage. They are able to openly believe and talk about their opposition. Their freedom of religion is already being used and is flaunted. They could put a sign in their window expressing their opposition if they desired.

Denying services to an innocent customer based on certain physical or ideological criteria is one definition of discrimination. If the roles were reversed and a gay bakery owner refused to serve customers based on their religion, the same consequences would apply in accordance with state laws.

The ideologies surrounding freedom of religion and nondiscriminatory laws are inevitably going to clash in one situation or another. Situations such as the one at Sweet Cakes are all too common in the ongoing debate about gay marriage versus religion.

The Kleins seem to be a nice, honest family that has garnered a large support base surrounding the controversy. To their relief, they most likely won’t encounter any more gay couples commissioning them for wedding cakes.

Violence and discrimination against people in the LGBTQ-plus community is a serious issue in our country. Nondiscriminatory laws are often the only legal protection victims have when shopping or applying for jobs and for schools.

America is a religiously charged country in many ways. It is satisfying to see, for once, the division of church and state act justly in favor of the victim.