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.

5 Responses to “Refusing to Serve: Moral Dimensions of the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case”

  1. Kurt


    A wonderful point, Jim.

    Since many people do not like the homosexual to pedophilia analogy, I have sometimes implemented an alternative analogy, that of an owner of a gun store. A gun store owner sells guns often knowing not what the gun will be used for (fun, target practice, hunting, self-defense, etc.). However, if a customer came in requesting to purchase a gun *with the stated, explicit intent of murdering someone* then I think the gun owner would be morally justified in refusing service on the basis that the owners would become an accessory to an immoral action. Likewise, I view baking goods for what the baker believes to be an immoral action to be grounds for refusal of service.

  2. Josh


    This is an interesting issue. My own inclination is to think that the baker is not justified in refusing to serve the gay couple.

    First, it seems to me that there is little about Christian principles that lends credence to the view that the state ought not to extend the rights and privileges of civil marriage to same-sex couples. I say “civil marriage” for a reason: it seems to me that the whole controversy about what marriage really is is beside the point. The state doesn’t have to take a view about the essence of ‘real’ marriage. It could instead simply say this: “Regardless of what ‘real’ marriage is or whether there is even such a thing as the essence of ‘real’ marriage, we can create an institution that we can call ‘civil marriage’—or civil shmarriage—and stipulate the rights and privileges that accrue to those who participate in the institution. Doing this is of course not to say that ‘real’ marriage can be whatever we want it to be. Maybe it can, maybe it can’t. But for our purposes, who cares whether John Corvino or Robert George are right about ‘real’ marriage? Perhaps the Catholics are right about real marriage, and someone who remarries after divorce isn’t really married. But we don’t care about that, because we aren’t interested in ‘real’ marriage anyway. We’re just interested in civil marriage, and THAT can be whatever we want it to be. We are not redefining ‘real’ marriage, but are simply talking about something else entirely, civil marriage. Whether it makes sense to do include a couple in this institution will of course depend on the purposes the institution was created to advance. To the extent that same-sex couples can advance the purposes of the institution (e.g. making end-of-life decisions easier, facilitating inheritance issues and child custody issues, etc.), we have reason to include them in the institution.”

    I see nothing in that chain of reasoning that a Christian—merely in virtue of being a Christian—must reject. Even if you thought homosexuality is immoral, it wouldn’t follow that anything said above is mistaken. Or at least I don’t see that that would follow. After all, even a Catholic who thought that someone who remarried after divorce wasn’t ‘really’ married might still recognize that the institution of civil marriage ought to include that couple.
    Second, it seems to me that there is no moral complicity in a ceremony merely by selling someone a product. For suppose that there were. Then presumably I couldn’t sell a cake to someone I knew would use it in a gay wedding. But what’s so special about cakes? Suppose I owned a napkin shop. I suppose I also couldn’t sell napkins to someone I knew would use them at a reception for a gay wedding. Likewise for CDs, decorations, or any other product that might be used in a wedding. It seems to me morally confused to think that one shouldn’t sell ANYTHING to someone if you know the person will use it in a same-sex wedding. And what’s so special about same-sex weddings? What if you knew the napkins were going to be used in a ceremony in the worship Allah, something a Christian might view as immoral? Do we really want to say that places of public accommodation should be free to refuse service to people based on the idiosyncratic moral scruples they happen to hold about homosexuality or Islam?

  3. Xan


    If I’m understanding your conclusion correctly, it’s that Mr. Phillips has a moral obligation to refuse service. The conclusion isn’t merely that he’s morally permitted to refuse service.

    The argument seems to have this form:

    1. If S believes that homosexuality is significantly morally wrong, and if action A is a direct contribution to that practice or practices positively associated with it, then S has a moral duty not to perform A.
    2. Mr. Phillips believes that homosexuality is significantly morally wrong.
    3. Mr Phillips’s baking a cake for a homosexual wedding is a direct contribution to practices positively association with homosexuality (namely, the wedding).
    4. Therefore, Mr. Phillips has a moral duty not to bake the cake.

    First, I would want to challenge the comparison of homosexuality to pedophilia and neo-Nazism. The case of Mr. Phillips is more like these cases than sweatshops only because the latter is indirect, the former are direct, a relevant feature that you note. But certainly the significance of pedophilia and neo-Nazism isn’t comparable to the significance of homosexuality, even if all are assumed wrong. Even sweatshops have a higher moral significance than homosexuality, it seems to me.

    But let’s consider (1). Consider:

    2′. Mr. Stevens believes that condemning homosexuality is significantly morally wrong (perhaps because it deprives people of a freedom they are entitled to).
    3′. Mr. Stevens’ fixing the audio system for a church that has a pastor that is an outspoken critic of homosexuality is a direct contribution to practices positively associated with the denigration of homosexuality (we may even suppose that Smith believes or knows that his next sermon will be one that decries homosexuality).

    (2′) and (3′) with (1) entail:

    4′. Mr. Stevens is morally obligated not to fix the audio system.

    I suppose, then, if Mr. Phillips fulfills his moral duty, we ought to equally praise Mr. Stevens for fulfilling his. I think this shows something is amiss. For one, moral duty should depend on what is in fact a moral truth, not what we believe the moral truth to be. Permissibility may be another issue (though I’m not sure about this either); but recall our concern is with moral duty at present. I’m inclined to say that Mr. Phillips is merely exhibiting consistency or integrity in the face of opposition; whether he is obligated (or permitted) has to come down to the truth-of-the-matter, in the end. If homosexuality is morally acceptable, then Mr. Phillips did something wrong, irrespective of what his beliefs are about the matter. And, as you note, I’m leaving legal issues aside.

    • Jim Spiegel


      Thanks for your thoughts, Xan. I don’t think your counter-example reveals anything problematic with my argument, since, as I say in my post, I am “assuming that same-sex marriage is inappropriate for moral-theological reasons.” And if one assumes otherwise, as your counter-example does, then a different set of duties related to such situations does indeed follow.

  4. Xan


    Ah, I misinterpreted that. I thought the claim was that same-sex marriage is *claimed to be* inappropriate for moral-theological reasons.

    In that case, then, disregard the above. 🙂


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