Guest commentary by Beth Brown
In my world here in Chicago as the pastor of Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, what the Supreme Court does with the refusal by the owners of a bakery to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple based on religious grounds is an earthquake waiting to happen. (To learn more about the case, see this piece by Religion News Service.) Either way the court decides, the ground will shift beneath us and for some it will feel as if the ground is being torn apart.
On Facebook last week, some of my friends have posted to their walls in rainbow letters “Jesus would have baked the damn cake!” Initially I laughed when I saw it and then I let the pain sink into my being. While much of the country has no idea why there is much ado about nothing, there are people like me who understand that this case before the Supreme Court is, at its heart, a case about basic human rights. Will I, a year from now, be able to walk into my dentist’s office to have my teeth cleaned without being asked if I am queer? Or will I have to search for a dentist that doesn’t “mind” cleaning my teeth because I won’t offend their religious beliefs?
Because we Presbyterians are in danger of looking soundly hypocritical, I think it’s important to acknowledge that for decades we refused “service” to the queer community. How many weddings have your congregations refused to perform and host for gay and lesbian couples? How is that any different from refusing to bake a cake based on religious grounds? You refused, saying your sessions wouldn’t approve because the denomination would not allow it. There is very little difference since the denomination also claimed religious beliefs as the justification for refusal. But, and I say this not out of a desire to excuse any congregation who refused loving couples seeking to have their marriages blessed by God, there is a difference that matters. When I had a complaint filed against me in 2006 for being out of compliance with the Book of Order because of who I am, I understood even then the larger context.
In the case of the owners of the bakery refusing to bake a cake, the interaction was between the gay couple and them. If they had baked the cake, it would have impacted them as they baked. If they refused, it would impact the gay couple. When the PC(USA) was in the wilderness of LGBTQ inclusion, it was, at least, an argument that was made for “the good of the whole.” In other words, when our polity was exclusionary it was polity that was created “for the people and by the people,” which is a democratic ideal that we share (or shared) with the United States government. In our case, when an individual congregation or person was thought to have violated the polity, they did so recognizing they could be held accountable and then they could try to change our polity or make the case that our polity was being misinterpreted or simply move to another denomination that was a better fit. We make a bold claim in saying that “God alone is over our conscience.” (I changed the language to make it non-patriarchal and empirical). The bakery owners cannot make a claim for “the good of the whole.” They can only make a claim for themselves. That’s where I see a difference.
Sometimes when I am counseling someone who is experiencing great fear or anxiety about something, I have them talk through the issue and follow it to the absolute worst-case scenario. Let’s do that here. The worst case scenario here is that if the Supreme Court sides with the owners of the bakery and declares that any business owner can refuse service to any person who “offends” their religious beliefs, our country will go back in time to Jim Crow days. Instead of only refusing service to black people (which was horrific enough), we will see businesses across this country opt to refuse service to any person who doesn’t look like them, sound like them, dress like them or worship like them. Is that the kind of country you want to live in?
Unlike a denomination, it’s not as easy to just leave and choose another country if this one becomes something so against the kind of Beloved community that Jesus created and preached and sought. Where would you go? I hope you’ll join me in praying for our Supreme Court.
BETH BROWN has been ordained for almost 25 years and has specialized in transitional ministry, mediation and spiritual direction. Beth is currently serving as pastor for Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago. She has two young adult daughters, Emily and Anna.