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The Complexities of Sexuality, Religion, and Cake

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Last Friday at Religion Dispatches, Kara Loewentheil explored the recent story of a Denver bakery that is being “sued for refusing to bake a homophobic cake.” She calls into question the legitimacy of the request:

It’s a snappy inversion of the now-classic example of bakers who refuse to provide wedding cakes for gay marriage or commitment ceremonies (or florists who refuse to provide flowers, photographers who refuse to photograph the ceremony, etc.). And that’s probably not an accident; if I were a betting woman, I’d bet heavily that a pro-religious-exemption think tank or law firm, like the Becket Fund, had come up with this plan and recruited a plaintiff to set it in motion.

Joe Carter has recently noted this case here at the PowerBlog as well, writing,

Whether the request was serious or a stunt done to make a political point, I find the viewpoint expressed to be loathsome. Assuming the words were indeed “hateful” they should have no association with a symbolic representation of the Christian faith. I also believe Ms. Silva should not be forced to use her creative skills in a way that violates her conscience.

This case is interesting, as Loewentheil put it, as “a snappy inversion of bakers who refuse to provide wedding cakes for gay marriage or commitment ceremonies.” And to her credit, despite her suspicion that the cake is a lie, she goes on to consider the implications by sharpening the question with a further hypothetical situation:

But what if there was no speech involved, or even no image at all? Just a customer who comes in and says “I want to order a cake to be used at my Church prayer group, where we plan to pray that God will smite anyone in a same-sex marriage or who has had an abortion. We will bless the cake and serve it in celebration of this holy purpose.” That’s a reasonable analogy to the gay couple that requests a cake for their wedding ceremony, I think, for the purposes of separating out identity from action, although it’s an imperfect one given the social and spiritual and legal significant of a marriage. But still, it’s a worthwhile foil for thinking through the argument. So does the fact that I find the prayer service purpose hateful or objectionable, or in conflict with my own principles, change its legal implications?

She explores several possible answers, but comes down undecided in the end:

Another interesting thought experiment is to imagine that you have an anti-marriage equality baker who is willing to bake cakes for gay customers in general, even knowing they are gay, but is not willing to bake one for a gay marriage. If that is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, then how do we think about a baker who would be willing to bake a cake for religious Christians in general, but just not if it is to be used at an anti-abortion or anti-marriage equality prayer service?

I’m not sure what the answer is here. But one of the things I find really interesting about this example is the way it highlights the blurry boundaries between politics and religious values.

I have been hesitant to comment on these cases myself for precisely this reason. In fact, I think the boundaries are even blurrier.

Let’s take the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, for instance. The ACLU summarizes the case as follows:

On May 30, 2014, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission determined that Masterpiece Cakeshop unlawfully discriminated against David Mullins and Charlie Craig by refusing to sell them a wedding cake.​

In Colorado, both sexual orientation and religion, in addition to race and nation of origin, are protected classes by law, meaning that a person cannot discriminate against a person on the basis of religion or sexuality. I find this interesting — and blurry — because in these cases the two are ostensibly conflicting.

From both sides, each persons of a particular protected class want their protected class status to apply to beyond individual actions to group activities while denying it to the others. We can break down the distinctions as follows:

Protected Class Religion Sexual Orientation
Individuals Bakers Same-Sex Couple
Group Bakery Wedding Party
Group Event/Action Baking cakes Wedding Celebration

The bakers believed that their religion prohibits them from participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony by baking a cake through their bakery, and that their private group activity as a bakery would be protected by law. The couple claimed that their protected class status extended to their own group and group activity, their wedding party and celebration, respectively, and expected them to be protected by law. In the same case, commentators from either side cried discrimination and bigotry.

For the more recent case, it is not quite as clear of a conflict. As Loewentheil notes, “In this case the baker herself actually identifies as Christian, so in some sense it’s a conflict between two types of Christianity.” Nevertheless, it brings the conflict back into popular reflection.

And there are further complications.

All this time, each side presumes membership in a protected class, but that status is not so clear cut — not as clear as, for example, the protected classes of race and nation of origin. These are comparatively easy to verify (DNA tests, birth certificates, et al.). And, as Joe Carter put it, “race is immutable.” Not so with religion or sexual orientation.

What determines one’s religion? Self-identity? If so, can anyone simply claim any religion or even make one up? Or — for legal purposes — does it require documented membership in a religious body? And if so, in order to object as Masterpiece Cakeshop did, does it require that religious body to explicitly prohibit any participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies? And if not, are religion and conscience really the same thing? Can one claim religious discrimination in a matter of conscience where one’s own religious body does not explicitly acknowledge it? From a legal perspective, how could that be enforced?

What about sexuality? Can sexual orientation simply be claimed? Is it not, at least, a matter of psychology as much as (or more than) choice, if the latter at all? What determines membership in this class? Can it be documented for legal purposes? There is no official club with membership records (that I know of). Some people live in denial for years before admitting it to themselves, not to mention to others. Can they claim retroactive discrimination before they self-identified as part of this class? Certainly self-identification plays some significant role. But is it reducible to that? Would homosexual persons want their sexual orientation to be reduced to whim?

The positive side of this most recent and otherwise regrettable case is that it does, to some extent, invert the situation. One economic distinction seems relevant, that between vendors and customers. For Colorado, consistent application of the law would seem to require an uncomfortable ruling in favor of the customers. The fact, however, that they wanted a hateful message written on the cake, as Loewentheil notes, raises questions of free speech that also may affect this ruling unlike that of the Masterpiece Cakeshop. To my knowledge, David Mullins and Charlie Craig did not request “God hates traditional marriage” to be written on their cake.

So a true converse of previous cases may remain only hypothetical at this point. That, I would add, is unfortunate, since as far as I can tell the conflict in Colorado — and elsewhere — is revealing flaws in laws written to protect certain groups of people who historically have suffered real and severe persecution. I’d like to see a solution that satisfies all advocates of non-discrimination, rather than one at the expense of another. But I haven’t seen one yet.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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