Recently, a Colorado appeals court ruled that baker Jack Phillips—owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver—does not have a right to refuse service for a gay wedding. The legal reasoning in this case, which affirmed previous rulings, is now the topic of much debate, and many more cases like it are sure to follow, with some perhaps being appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
Setting the legal issues aside, what are we to say about the moral stance of the baker in this case? Was Mr. Phillips morally justified in refusing to serve this same-sex couple? A Christian pastor recently posed this question to me: Assuming that same-sex marriage is inappropriate for moral-theological reasons, does a Christian baker such as Phillips have a duty to refuse to serve for a same-sex wedding? The pastor went on to explain that he strongly affirms the traditional view of marriage as the union between one man and one woman and that, therefore, same-sex unions are immoral. Yet, he was not convinced that Phillips would necessarily be doing anything wrong by serving the couple. After all, the pastor said, he’s just doing his job. Why not simply take the approach that he will serve whoever asks. After all, Jesus says, “give to the one who asks you” (Mt. 5:42; Lk. 6:30).
In response, one might note that Jesus’ maxim here is not intended to be unqualified. Thus, for example, presumably Jesus would not want you to strictly abide by this instruction when an inebriated friend asks you for the keys to his car so he can drive himself home. Similarly, one might say that a business owner should not refuse anyone service unless doing so would constitute support for an immoral act.
The problem with this general qualification, the pastor pointed out, is that, as American consumers, it is virtually unavoidable to indirectly support immoral systems and policies, such as manufacturing sweat shops or environmentally hazardous practices, via our clothing and food purchases. So how is this any different?
This is a common response to the situation, but I think it confuses the issue by comparing a clear case of problematic moral complicity with less clear “gray area” cases. To make my point, I countered with a hypothetical case of my own: Suppose a Christian baker is approached by members of NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) with a request to bake cakes for one of their meetings. Since the baker believes, for theological reasons, that pedophilia is immoral, he refuses to serve them. The pastor thought this would be reasonable. And he said the same regarding another scenario I presented where a similar request is made by a Skinhead group.
So the question is this: Is the Denver baker case more like these scenarios or is it more like cases of inadvertent support of sweatshops and other injustices through one’s purchases?
In response, I would note, first, that in many of the latter cases, we should likewise refuse to lend our support through our purchases, because it constitutes moral complicity with an immoral act. However, it can be difficult to know when such support is significant enough to warrant our refusal to make certain purchases on those grounds. Thus, we may want to consider two relevant moral criteria: 1) how significant is the immoral conduct in question? And (2) how direct would be one’s support of the immoral conduct, if one acted on the request? The reason most of us would grant that a baker is morally justified in refusing service to NAMBLA and the Skinheads is that such service would directly support these organizations, and the immoral aims of these groups are highly significant–pedophilia and ethnic hatred are serious moral crimes.
So let’s apply these questions to the Denver baker case. Does Phillips have grounds for thinking that same-sex unions are significantly immoral? As a Christian who takes seriously both Scripture and the unified voice of nearly two millennia of theological history, he certainly seems to. And would the requested service directly support this conduct? Again, the answer is yes—at least as directly as the same service would support NAMBLA and the Skinheads in the parallel cases.
So whatever legal fate might befall Mr. Phillips for refusing to serve a gay wedding, his choice is morally appropriate, given the traditional Christian sexual ethic. However one might want to quibble with that traditional doctrine or shift focus to the political-legal dimensions of the case, Phillips’ actions are morally coherent and warranted. Active complicity with an immoral act is wrong, and the refusal to be so complicit is morally justified.