Winnifred Sullivan on the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case: What is Religion?

Cake baker

Indiana University religion professor Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wants to know how the Supreme Court defines religion.  Here is a taste of her piece at The Immanent Frame,
Is Masterpiece Cakeshop a Church?“:

Let us weigh in where angels fear to tread. Where is the religion in this case and what kind of religion is it?

Mr. Phillips’s religion is described by Justice Anthony Kennedy as follows:

Phillips is a devout Christian. He has explained that his “main goal in life is to be obedient to” Jesus Christ and Christ’s “teachings in all aspects of his life.” And he seeks to “honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop.” One of Phillips’ religious beliefs is that “God’s intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman.” To Phillips, creating a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding would be equivalent to participating in a celebration that is contrary to his own most deeply held beliefs.

That is all. That qualifies Mr. Phillips for constitutional attention.

What do we know about Mr. Phillips’s religion from this? We know that he calls himself a Christian. We are told that he understands this to mean that his whole life should reflect fidelity to the teachings of Jesus. Virtually all Christians (perhaps a strong majority of Americans) could affirm something like this. Presumably that would not be enough to qualify a person for special legal treatment. What more is required for such treatment is a bit murky.

If we look to the religious claims in past cases, before the sincerity test was standardized, we see that Mr. Reynolds in the famed Mormon polygamy case said he would be damned if he did not practice plural marriage. The Court made a careful, if bigoted, analysis of Mormon religious teaching. The Amish families in the Yoder case said that sending their children to high school would destroy the Amish religious community. The Court reported lovingly and at length on the Amish religious way of life. Mr. Smith and Mr. Black said that ingesting peyote was a sacramental mandate, central to their weekly worship. Dissenting justices rehearsed the history of peyote use in the Native American Church and speculated about the Church’s benefits for remediating Native American alcoholism.

The Court no longer traffics in such amateur philosophizing about religion and religious practice. Religion today has become standardized and formatted for the purposes of laws protecting religious freedom.

What else does the Court report about Mr. Phillips? What makes this Colorado baker so obviously deserving of special treatment, when Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Smith and Mr. Black were not? According to the Court,

  1. He is “devout.”
  2. He believes that God intends marriage to be restricted to heterosexual couples.
  3. He believes it would be wrong for him to sell a cake he created to a same-sex couple for their wedding.

Let us consider each of these in turn and how they add up to the core of what counts as religion today….

Read the entire piece here.

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