Keep it Simple

by Rev. Julie Johnson Staples J.D.

I believe God empowers each of us to look at the most complicated problems with Divine simplicity. That is the beauty of the dissent written by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Monday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., et al v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Justice Ginsburg lays it out clearly and simply. In eleven short paragraphs, she makes it plain. Justice Ginsburg also gets it right.

“What matters is that [the bake shop owner] would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple,” wrote Justice Ginsburg.

Legal commentators and judicially savvy journalists struggled to constrain the ruling to the narrowness of the facts upon which the Court judged this case. The Court, in an opinion written by Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, held that Jack Phillips, the Masterpiece bake shop owner, did not illegally discriminate against a same gender loving couple whom he denied the right to order, buy and enjoy one of his masterpiece wedding cakes. This case was closely watched as a follow-on to the 2015 landmark decision which granted the right to same-sex couples to marry. In Masterpiece, Justices ignored broad Constitutional questions over denial of service. Instead, the decision simply concluded that Phillips hadn’t gotten a fair hearing before the state civil rights commission.

Social justice activists hailed the Court’s self-restraint. “As a cleric, it has been painful to witness the ways some use their religion to advance discriminatory practices that often negatively impact the most vulnerable,” commented Bishop Tonyia Rawls, Founding Pastor of the Sacred Souls Community Church UCC. “I give kudos to the U.S. Supreme Court for restricting their decision to just one business and not the entire country.”

But Bishop Rawls, who also is Founding Director of the Freedom Center for Social Justice, added: “We still have much work to do. Until this nation finds a way to extend equal justice, access and protection for all, we must continue to fight!”

We must fight indeed, for lawyers are clever. Equally clever are those faith-filled religious folk who comfortably preach a cramped Christianity through blurred lenses — even as they hold on to their biases, pre-conceived notions, theological certainties and prejudices.

For Justin Lee, this type of behavior presents a call to action. “If Christians in our culture are killing Christianity, the gay Christians just might be the ones who are able to save it,” Lee, the former director of The Gay Christian Network, writes in his 2012 book, “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.”

Unfortunately notwithstanding in this season of PRIDE, polarization over issues of openness, affirmation and acceptance rage on. That is what sits with Rev. Chad Tanaka Pack, an associate minister at Marble Collegiate Church, as he reflected on the Masterpiece decision.

“What I find interesting is how the different groups of constituents are responding and framing it in their own light,” Pack said. “There is a relief that each of the different factions can respond and interpret it favorably. Perhaps we’re in a space and time where we all try to narrow the answers so that everyone can win. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

What he knows for sure, however, is that it reflects a place and space of indecision. “And that’s the indecision in which the Reformed Church of America (RCA) has lived in for 40-something years…And, it doesn’t work,” said Pack, a board member to the faith-based organization Room For All. The non-profit organization aims to support, educate and advocate for the welcome and full affirmation of people of all sexual identities and gender expressions in the RCA.

The wisdom of Franciscan Father Richard Rohr is insightful here: “As a general rule, I would say that institutional religion tends to think of people as very simple, and therefore the law must be very complex to protect them in every situation. Jesus is exactly and consistently the opposite: He treats people as very complex — different in religion, lifestyle, virtue, temperament, and success — and keeps the law very simple in order to bring them to God.”

That’s the same spirit of Justice Ginsburg’s dissent.

The Masterpiece baker Phillips “would not sell” to Charlie Craig and David Mullins “for no reason other than their sexual orientation, a cake of the kind he regularly sold to others. When a couple contacts a bakery for a wedding cake, the product they are seeking is a cake celebrating their wedding — not a cake celebrating heterosexual weddings or same-sex weddings — and that is the service Craig and Mullins were denied.”

Well said, sister Justice. Well said.

That sounds like discrimination, not free exercise of religion. What the world needs now is more justice, peace, love and reconciliation — not discrimination masquerading as freedom.

Rev. Julie Johnson Staples, J.D.