Ari Ezra Waldman makes an important critical point about this week's Masterpiece Cake Shop ruling:
Third, the opinion includes troubling conclusions. As we discussed yesterday, the Court found that statements from Commissioners sitting on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission evidenced so much anti-religious bias that they denied the Christian baker a fair, impartial hearing. But those statements don’t really evidence bias. Here was the most offending statement:
I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.
In reaction to this, the Court said, “To describe a man’s faith as ‘one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use’ is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere.”
But that is not at all what the Commissioner did. His comment called out using religion as a pretext for discrimination. And besides, the Commissioner is one hundred percent correct. Christianity justified the Holocaust. Religion was used to justify slavery. Religion was used to justify Jim Crow, apartheid, and laws against interracial marriage.
This raises an important question. If saying something true, yet critical about religion as an institution is an example of expressing hostility toward religion, then is every comment critical of religion evidence of bias? Are we never allowed to say anything negative about the harms that can be wrought by fundamentalism? It’s now hard to imagine the forces of equality getting a fair hearing if no one can say anything negative about the forces of bigotry when they use religion to justify their hatred.
Granted, Masterpiece Cakeshop is neither a huge triumph for bigotry nor a devastating loss for equality. But it is not harmless. It allowed bigotry to win today and may have several dangerous effects.
It is actually a sign of taking an argument or idea seriously to engage it in critical public discourse. Religion is not and should not be immune from criticism. That is how religions improve and advance like anything else.