Op-Ed: A Muslim perspective on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case

Written by Ilhan Cagri, Policy Fellow for Religious Freedom

December 6, 2017

Photo by Victoria Pickering (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo by Victoria Pickering (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This was originally published in Religion News Service on December 6, 2017.

(RNS) — American Muslims not only have a stake in the outcome of the Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Human Rights Commission but must take a moral stand on it as well.

The case, which was argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday (Dec. 5), pits freedom of religion and expression against nondiscrimination laws. At the center of the case is a Colorado bakery owner who in 2012 refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because of his religious conviction that doing so would support gay marriage rights and violate his religious beliefs.

The case before the Supreme Court considers a “constitutional exemption” — giving the baker permission to violate a state anti-discrimination law because not doing so would violate his rights guaranteed him by the First Amendment.

In Tuesday’s arguments, U.S. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco — supporting the baker’s case — offered the analogy of an African-American artist, who he said should not be compelled to sculpt a cross that would be used by the Ku Klux Klan.

Taking another perspective, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the court did not want to “undermine every single civil rights law,” while Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that a baker posting a sign that declared he does not bake wedding cakes for gay couples might be “an affront to the gay community.”

For American Muslims — or any other religious community, for that matter — this court case will set a legal precedent that could allow any firm that provides services to the public to deny those services to specific individuals for any number of reasons based on religious belief.

This interpretation of religious freedom could transform our nation from one where rights are respected and uniformly protected under the law to one where subgroups are identified for discrimination, isolation and exclusion by those who interpret their religion as one that calls for differential treatment of others based on their identity, viewpoint or way of life.

In the 1960s, a South Carolina restaurant owner argued that his religious beliefs meant he could refuse to serve black customers. In the 1970s and 1980s, schools claimed that they should be allowed to pay women less than men based on the belief that men should be the head of the household. In all these cases, the courts ruled that religious views do not entitle any of us to discriminate.

As American Muslims, we fully understand that civil rights and religious freedom are both critical to our identities. Muslims continue to face challenges in areas of employment, housing and public accommodations.

Nondiscrimination laws assure that the state does not take sides when it comes to religion by favoring one religious tradition over another, and these laws promote religious pluralism by prohibiting religion-based discrimination by private actors. Without these protections, businesses would be legally permitted to discriminate against us and other minorities.

From an Islamic perspective, religion is not serving its purpose if human dignity is compromised. Religiously motivated discrimination goes against the Islamic principles of tolerance and protection of individual rights.

While there are Muslims who, like some Christians, view their faith as having a clear and restricting view of sexual behavior and identity, Islam does not permit one to discriminate in providing services to individuals because they believe or behave in a way counter to one’s understanding of Islamic teachings. Muslim professionals, for example, cannot and would not even consider denying service to a person because he or she drinks alcohol, eats pork, commits adultery or has premarital sex.

American Muslims understand that in Islam, the government’s role is not to impose certain religious practices and beliefs on citizens, nor to choose which practices fall within religious freedom. Good governance in Islam establishes and protects equality under the law and can never determine a “right” religion versus “wrong” religion. Current events provide plenty of examples as to why government  imposition of a particular religious view does grievous harm to a society. And there is no shortage of criticism by American Muslims of violations of human rights in the Muslim world under the guise of religious purity.

Impositions of religious views are considered aberrations of the Islamic belief in God’s benevolence and the divine dignity inherent in every human being.

American Muslims understand that religious liberty should be interpreted in ways that are equality-enhancing, not equality-denying, and that in order for America’s values of freedom and equality to prevail, our religious freedoms cannot come at the cost of another’s civil liberty.

While the court seems to be divided on this case (with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy likely to cast the deciding vote), the perspective for American Muslims should be clear: The Masterpiece Cakeshop plaintiffs have twisted the meaning of religious freedom. They have attacked human dignity. Both in God’s world and in the United States, a person’s identity cannot be a justification for harassment, harm or discrimination.



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