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Religious Tolerance logo

Religious freedom to discriminate

Some businesses owners believe that their
personal religious freedom includes the right
to refuse to serve the LGBT community.

National poll shows public opinion on this.

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Some businesses owners believe their religious freedoms include being able to discriminate against the LGBT community:

During recent years, there have been about a dozen prominent stories in the media about "public accommodations" in the U.S. whose owners have refused to do business with same-sex engaged couples. Public accommodations are typically "for-profit" companies which have been set up to serve the general public. Most are retail stores. When this type of conflict surfaces in North America, it typically involves a company in the marriage "industry" whose owner(s) are conservative Christians. Examples have involved wedding cake bakers, florists, companies renting venus for marriages and receptions, wedding photographers, etc.

The owners often feel conflicted because various factors pull them in opposing directions. For example:

  • The Bible: The owner generally believes that the U.S. Constitution has guaranteed them the religious freedom to discriminate against the LGBT community. They usually base their religious beliefs on their interpretation of the six "clobber" passages in the Bible that they believe ban all same-gender sexual behavior as well as same-sex marriage.

    Unfortunately, these passages appear to be ambiguous. Liberal Christians generally interpret them to refer to:
    • Men attempting to rape visitors to the city of Sodom;

    • A man engaging in sexual behavior with a male prostitute in a Pagan temple;

    • Two men having sex on a woman's bed; or
    • Heterosexual men and women engaging in an orgy with others of the same-sex in violation of their basic nature and sexual orientation.

    • Men sexually abusing boys.

    • etc.

    That is, their activity was unrelated to consensual same-gender sex within a loving relationship by a couple who are sexually attracted to each other.

  • Human rights laws: Their business is often located in a city and/or state that has a human rights ordinance or law on the books. These generally require businesses to refrain from discriminating on the basis of a customer's skin color, national origin, race, gender, religion, marital status, and age. Many also include sexual orientation and/or gender identity as protected classes. If found guilty of violating the human rights of their potential customers, the companies are usually required to pay a fine. The law generally allows religious institutions to freely discriminate with impunity.

  • The Golden Rule: This is formally called the Ethic of Reciprocity. It is found in various wordings in all of the major religions of the world. It requires a person to treat other others as she or he would wish to be treated. This implies that owners of a business set up to sell goods and services to the general public should serve everyone, no matter what the customer's sexual orientation or gender identity is. Jesus is quoted in the Gospels of Luke, Matthew and Thomas as required his followers to follow this rule of behavior.

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An example that involves the religious freedom to discriminate: "Sweet Cakes by Malissa" in Gresham, Oregon:

In this remarkable case, the owners of this store were fined the enormous sum of $135,000 after one of the co-owners refused to bake a wedding cake for potential customers Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer, an engaged lesbian couple.

Owner Aaron Klein allegedly quoted Leviticus 18:22 as justification for his refusal. However, this passage appears to ban only same-gender activity by two males, and then only under unusual circumstances. It doesn't include two women engaging in consensual same-gender sexual behavior. Thus, it could hardly apply in the "Sweet Cakes" case.

The secular media and conservative religious news sources generally reported that the fine was levied for the refusal to bake the cake. Actually, the fine was assessed because the store owner, Aaron Klein, apparently posted the names and address of the two customers on his Facebook page. This resulted in the couple being subjected to a heavy barrage of death threats, threats of violence, and other forms of harassment. The administrative law judge in the case ruled that any reasonable person would have realized that to publish the names of the couple could lead to them being harassed. Their car was vandalized and broken into twice. Local photographers and florists severed ties with the company. After the final order against the owners was issued, lawyer Anna Harmon, who represented the Kleins, commented:

"The Commissioner was correct when he stated in his final order that this case is not about a wedding cake or a marriage. With his final order, Brad Avakian has made this case about an overpowered elected official using his position to root out [religious] thought and speech with which he personally disagrees."

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The shop in Gresham was closed in 2013-SEP; the owners now operate the business out of their home. The Kleins subsequently raised over $450,000 from over 7,000 strangers who donated money via two crowd funding web sites. 1,2,3

One of the articles about this case on the Oregon Live web site received 2,015 comments from readers. Two typical comments are:

  • "KM" posted: How are their rights being violated in any way? ...Are they being told they can't worship as they choose? Can't believe what they choose? Are they being persecuted and beheaded or robbed of their property because of their religious belief? Are they being put in concentration camps?"

  • posted: "God bless this family of five who has endured so much true hate from gay lobbyists and those who abuse positions of power for political goals."

  • posted: "We may wish to consider creating 'sanctuary neighborhoods' where good Christians and other oppressed religions can practice their faith without being exposed to the laws, customs and indelicacies of the secular world. Of course each religion will need its own separate sanctuary neighborhood, because getting along with each other is often their most difficult task."

  • " posted: "At the end of the day, would anyone really want to be accommodated by a begrudging accommodator ? Who wants to pay for services from an unwilling provider. It just goes against the grain of human interaction and free will." 3

Some other businesses who have been found to have violated their customers human rights have also been fined heavily. That cost plus adverse publicity have forced some businesses into bankruptcy. On the other hand, other companies have found their customer base significantly increased when the news spread that they discriminate against lesbians, gays. and/or bisexuals.

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What the public thinks about service refusals by buisinesses on religious grounds:

Public Religion Research Institute is a public opinion polling agency that specializes in religious topics. They publish an American Values Atlas. During 2015, the year in which the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across all 50 states, one District and four out of five Territories, 4 they sampled public opinion each week to discover the public's views on the refusals by some public accommodations to provide products or services to the LGBT community.

PRRI asked the question of their polling subjects:

"Now, we would like to get your views on some issues that are being discussed in the country today. Do you strongly favor, favor, oppose or strongly oppose allowing a mall business owner in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs."

Between 2015-MAY and SEP, the public heavily opposes such discrimination:

PPRI poll 5


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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Robyn Pennacchia, "Anti-Gay Oregon Bakers Were Not Actually Fined $135,000 For Refusing To Make A Gay Wedding Cake," The Frisky, 2015-JUL-10, at:
  2. "Sweet Cakes discrimination hearing looks at bakery owners' side." Oregon Live, 2015-MAR-17, at:
  3. "Sweet Cakes by Melissa raises record amount of cash on crowdfunding site." Oregon Live, 2015-JUL-15, at:
  4. The exception is the Territory of American Samoa where people who are born there are U.S. Nationals but not U.S. Citizens. More details.
  5. "PRRI Religion and Politics Tracking Survey May 1‐September 27, 2015," Public Religion Research Institute, 2015-OCT, at:

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How you may have arrived here:

Home > Religious freedom > Religious freedom to discriminate > here

Home > Important essays > Religious freedom > Religious freedom to discriminate > here

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Copyright © 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2015-NOV-02
Latest update : 2015-NOV-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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