Utah’s LGBT activists mourned, its Republican senators applauded, and its faith leaders breathed a momentary sigh of relief, but all sides agreed that Monday’s narrow Supreme Court decision, allowing a Christian baker to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, will hardly be the final word in the tug of war over religious rights.
The day after its celebratory Pride Parade, Salt Lake City’s LGBT community saw smiles turn to frowns with the justices’ 7-2 ruling.
“We’re incredibly disappointed that that was the decision,” said Rob Moolman, executive director of the Utah Pride Center. “Particularly because we woke up to this news the day after the Pride Festival and the parade. It’s given us a reality check about the amount of work that still needs to be done. … It’s a call to action.”
Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams emphasized that the limited ruling focused on this specific Colorado case and “does not turn back the clock on equality.”
“For more than 50 years, Americans have agreed that a person should not be fired, evicted or denied goods and services because of who they are,” he said. “Today’s decision affirms these principles in that LGBTQ couples are to be afforded dignity and worth in society and in the law.
“Now more than ever, we need comprehensive federal and state nondiscrimination laws that protect all Americans,” he said, adding that “Equality Utah looks forward to working again with the Utah Legislature to pass a comprehensive public accommodations law in 2019.”
The LDS Church — which embraced and indeed pushed Utah’s 2015 compromise statute protecting LGBT individuals from housing and workplace discrimination while safeguarding some religious liberties — welcomed the high court’s decision.
“This nation’s laws can protect both religious liberty and the rights of LGBT citizens,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said. “That is the meaning of fairness for all.”
Last year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joined a handful of religious organizations — including the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Orthodox Jewish Congregations and others — in signing a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Virginia-based Christian Legal Society on behalf of the baker.
It asked the justices to consider the First Amendment rights of deeply religious Americans. While acknowledging the legal right of same-sex couples to marry, it also noted many people of faith steadfastly believe that providing services for a gay wedding betrays their religious views.
The document pointed to that Utah compromise as evidence that the interests of those groups “need not be fought as a zero-sum conflict with political winners and losers.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, cheered Monday’s ruling as well.
”Hostility toward religion has no place in government. At the same time, religious freedom means much more than freedom from government hostility,” the longtime senator said in a news release. “Courts must protect the ability of believers to freely live their faith and to express their religious beliefs openly and honestly.”
Hatch’s Utah GOP colleague, Sen. Mike Lee, also welcomed the decision, calling it “a win for our nation’s founding principle that our laws must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.”
Salt Lake City’s openly gay mayor, however, was “disappointed and surprised” by the ruling.
“The court had the opportunity to reaffirm the long-standing principle in this country that businesses should be open to all people,” Mayor Jackie Biskupski said in a news release. “With that said, I am also relieved that the court was extremely narrow in their decision focusing on particular actions in the Colorado case and avoiding any negative precedent.”
Biskupski noted that Utah’s capital joined 102 cities in an amicus brief arguing in favor of the same-sex couple in that case.
“I feel strongly, as I did then, that Salt Lake City will continue to participate in litigation which endangers the equal rights of any people in our community. Everyone should know, that if you do business in our city, you do business with everyone.”
Until future legal disputes settle the issue, Biskupski said, “LGBTQ people in this country must continue to wonder whether they may be refused service for who they are — and that’s simply unacceptable.”
But the Sutherland Institute’s Bill Duncan, director for The Center for Family and Society, sees the justices’ 7-2 breakdown as a sign that liberals and conservatives agree that the First Amendment rights of people of faith must be protected.
Duncan advised policymakers to heed this “principle of inclusion” when passing laws and setting rules.
“Reasonable actors of all stripes ought to see today’s decision as an opportunity to elevate our dialogue rather than retreating into ideological comfort zones,” he said in a news release, “and seek out legal protections inclusive of everyone — even those with whom we disagree.”
Assistant Pastor Jim Harris of Calvary Chapel Salt Lake City, a nondenominational Christian church, trumpeted the ruling as a clear win for religion.
It sets a precedent so that “an evangelical pastor or a Mormon bishop or a Catholic priest or a Muslim imam won’t be forced to do something,” he said, like officiate at a same-sex wedding “that is outside their religious beliefs.”
Calvary Chapel teaches that the Bible is “inerrant” and does not accept gay marriage or allow its pastors to conduct any such wedding, Harris said, but it doesn’t instruct members to refuse to bake cakes or provide other services to people whose views differ from their own.
“That’s an individual conviction,” Harris said. “We don’t use religion to bash people. We preach love.”
The Rev. Scott B. Hayashi noted that “the very narrow court decision opens up an opportunity to affirm the Episcopal Church’s belief and our church’s resolve for equal treatment for all who God formed in his image.”
Utah’s Episcopal bishop, who marched in Salt Lake City’s Pride Parade, is concerned “that people are losing voice and dignity when they are denied service because of religion, sexual orientation, gender and country of origin.”
Hayashi remains heartened that Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who preached eloquently of love in his sermon at Britain’s recent royal wedding, “also filed an amicus brief [against the baker] in this case denouncing the humiliation of discrimination.”