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“The government, consistent with the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise, cannot impose regulations that are hostile to the religious beliefs of affected citizens and cannot act in a manner that passes judgment upon or presupposes the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices.”
With these words, the Supreme Court issued a major ruling yesterday regarding religious freedom. What does it mean for us as we engage a culture that is in many ways “hostile” to our “religious beliefs”?
The story in brief
In 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins made plans to be lawfully married in Massachusetts, then return to Colorado for a wedding reception. They visited Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, to order a custom cake.
Masterpiece owner Jack Phillips declined their request, explaining that his Christian beliefs kept him from using his artistic abilities to create such a cake. Over the years, he has declined to create many custom cakes that would display unbiblical messages. He wouldn’t make a cake celebrating a divorce, for instance.
He offered to sell the couple other baked goods in the store, but they declined and filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Commission decided in their favor and ordered Masterpiece to take steps to ensure future compliance with its ruling. Phillips appealed that ruling and chose to stop making wedding cakes, costing him 40 percent of his business. He has also faced death threats.
The State’s decision was upheld on appeal but reversed yesterday by the Supreme Court. The 7-2 majority found that the Colorado Commission’s treatment of Phillips’s case “violated the State’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint.”
What the ruling means
Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted that “this ruling is a win, not only for those of us who are Christians, who hold to a pro-marriage, pro-family viewpoint, but also for all Americans, for freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.”
Moore is right. If the Court had ruled against Phillips, it would have sanctioned antagonistic and intolerant treatment of Christians who disagree with the culture on social issues.
However, we need to note that the Court made its ruling on the basis of the Colorado Commission’s hostility to Phillips’s religious beliefs rather than the larger issue of anti-discrimination law and the free exercise of religion.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated, “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
In other words, the Supreme Court protected Christians from “undue disrespect” to our beliefs but did not resolve whether we can nonetheless be required to provide commercial services that conflict with those beliefs.
Four ways to respond
The annual Gay Pride Month began last Friday. According to the Library of Congress, “celebrations include pride parades, picnics, parties, workshops, symposia and concerts, and LGBT Pride Month events attract millions of participants around the world.”
The LGBT population in the United States is now at 4.5 percent. It’s hard to identify another demographic of similar size that receives a month-long celebration each year.
At the same time, 60 percent of Americans now say they support same-sex marriage. Those of us who believe the Bible regarding homosexual activity and marriage are clearly in the minority. We can expect more court battles as the conflict between sexual freedom and religious freedom escalates.
In the meantime, how should we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) on this issue?
Remember that popularity doesn’t change principle. Public opinion does not alter biblical truth. If you stand on the rock of God’s word, no matter what storms come, your house will not fall (Matthew 7:24-26).
Defend your faith “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Be sure your words and actions reflect the grace of Jesus. Every LGBT person and every person who agrees with their moral agenda is someone for whom Jesus died. Their souls matter more than winning an argument.
Encourage those facing sexual temptation to seek God’s help. The Bible teaches that all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong. When we are tempted sexually, we can turn to God’s Spirit and God’s people for the strength to obey God’s word (1 Corinthians 10:13; Galatians 6:2).
Build relational bridges to Jesus. Our Lord began his encounter with the Samaritan woman by asking for water, then led her to Living Water (John 4). We must earn the right to be heard by caring for the felt needs of those who need Jesus. Pray for ways to connect with LGBT people and their advocates, looking for opportunities to show God’s love in yours.
These are days that call for courageous yet compassionate Christians. Everyone you know deserves to know God’s word on sexual morality and other divisive issues. The more our culture rejects biblical truth, the more it needs biblical truth.
Jim Elliott prayed, “Let me not be a milepost on a single road; make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me.” I just made Elliott’s prayer my own. Will you join me?