Last month, Portland’s Willamette Week tricked some area bakeries to help show how their opposition to same-sex marriage was a bit hypocritical. The newspaper went to a couple of cake-makers that had opposed selling wedding cakes to same-sex couples based on their Christian beliefs. Without identifying itself, WW ordered pastries to celebrate divorce and out-of-wedlock birth (among other things). Though those things are condemned by the Bible at least as much as same-sex relationships, the companies had no problem filling the orders.
The bakeries had been criticized in part because Oregon bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by any place that offers goods or services to the public. ORS 659A.403. But the owners of these shops have argued that it is wrong to force them to sell to certain customers when doing so violates their religious beliefs. And even some people who might otherwise support LGBT rights, including same-sex marriage, probably see some validity to this argument: after all, can’t gay people just go to a different bakery?
But as an employment discrimination attorney, I know that if religious beliefs were a defense in these cases, our entire system of anti-discrimination laws — which protect us all from being mistreated based on who we are — would fall apart. In fact, when the United States passed laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, many argued that racial discrimination was part of their belief system, and their religious rights would be violated by the laws. Our courts have rejected this argument.
For instance, in Bob Jones University v. United States, a religious school sued the government because the tax code pendalized the school for banning interracial dating and marriage, among other things. The school argued that losing its tax-exempt status for this reason violated its First Amendment religious rights. But the Supreme Court said the government’s interest in banning discrimination outweighed these rights.
Times change, and courts sometimes abandon their old decisions. In addition, there are exceptions to the general rule. Actual religious organizations like churches often do get a pass from these laws. But for now at least, whether you are a victim of discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability, or some other protected category, religious belief alone is usually no defense.