ISSUE: An important individual in Christian History and his sea story.
BACKGROUND: John Newton has an important place in Christian History and his ‘sea story’ is worthy of the attention of all Christians. The following references were used to develop the discussion below: E. Michael and Sharon Rusten, “The One Year Book of Christian History”, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois; 2003, pp. 162-163, “John Newton – Reformed Slave Trader”, Christian History & Biography, ChristianityToday.com, August, 8, 2008 accessed at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/pastorsandpreachers/newton.html on April 08, 2018.
DISCUSSION: Many are familiar with the name John Newton because of his autobiographical hymn, “Amazing Grace”, but few are as familiar with his life prior to becoming a minister in the Church of England. Newton was born in 1725, the son of a sea captain. At age six or seven, he lost his mother to tuberculosis, but not before she prayed that he would become a minister. He was raised in his father’s image and put to sea with his father at age eleven.
Newton lost his first job, in a merchant’s office, because of “unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint”. He spent his later teen years at sea before he was press-ganged, (forcibly enlisted), aboard the H.M.S. Harwich in 1744. Once there, he rebelled against the discipline of the Royal Navy and deserted. He was caught, placed in irons, and flogged. Discharged to a slave ship, he remained arrogant and insubordinate, doubling down on a dangerous pattern of behavior in his life. He lived with moral abandon: “I sinned with a high hand” he later wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” Eventually, he was employed by a slave-trader named Clow, who owned a plantation of lemon trees on an island off west Africa. There he was treated cruelly and forced to beg for food.
Newton was next transferred to the service of the captain of the ‘Greyhound’, a Liverpool ship. In 1747, homeward bound, Newton experienced the change of a lifetime. In his own words: “Among the few books we had on board, one was Stanhope’s Thomas a Kempis “The Imitation of Christ”: I carefully took it up, as I had often done before, to pass away the time; but I had still read it with the same indifference as if it was entirely a romance. However, while I was reading this time, an involuntary suggestion arose in my mind – what if these things should be true?”
Later that night, the ship was overtaken by an enormous storm and within a few minutes was filling with water. Working frantically, the crew finally stopped the leaks. Exhausted, Newton heard himself say to the captain, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us.” He was instantly taken aback by his own words, for this was the first time he had desired God’s mercy. He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.” Newton sadly concluded that there had never been a sinner as wicked as he and that his sins were too great and too many to be forgiven. The experience of the storm had converted him. In his own words: “I stood in need of an Almighty Savior, and such a one found described in the New Testament…”
Newton then served as a mate and worked his way to captain of a number of slave ships. He hoped as a Christian, to restrain the worst excesses of the slave trade, “promoting the life of God in the soul” of both his crew and his African cargo. After leaving the sea for an office job in 1755, Newton held Bible studies in his Liverpool home. Influenced by both the Wesleys and George Whitefield, he adopted mild Calvinist views and became increasingly disgusted with the slave trade and his role in it. He quit and was ordained into the Anglican ministry. In 1764, his mother’s prayer was answered as Newton took a parish in Olney in Buckinghamshire.
Three years after Newton arrived, the poet William Cowper moved to Olney. Cowper experienced bouts of depression and became a lay helper in the small congregation. Newton began a Thursday evening prayer service and challenged Cowper to write hymns for these meetings. Newton later combined 280 of his own hymns with 68 of Cowper’s in what was to become the popular ‘Olney Hymns’. Among those well-known hymns are “Amazing Grace,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” “O for a Closer Walk with God,” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
Newton was instrumental in encouraging William Wilberforce as he fought to end the English slave trade. At a crucial point in his life when Wilberforce was struggling with whether a life in politics was consistent with following Christ, he visited Newton to discuss this very topic. Newton, then 60 years old and a rector of a church in East London, encouraged the young Wilberforce to remain in politics. He reasoned that perhaps Wilberforce had been prepared “for such a time as this.” This conversation seems to have given Wilberforce the resolve to “take his faith into the world of politics and serve God there with his gifts.”
In 1787 Newton wrote “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” to help Wilberforce’s campaign to end the practice—“a business at which my heart now shudders,” he wrote. Recollection of that chapter in his life never left him. In his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, “I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
Newton died in December 1807, just nine months after Britain’s Slave Trade Act—championed by Wilberforce—became law.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT: What does the Bible say about this topic?
“But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you—when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me,” Proverbs 1:24-28
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26
“Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3
“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” 1 Peter 1:23
ISSUE: What the Bible says about taxes.
BACKGROUND: The deadline for filing income tax returns is approaching, and while the impact of the recently passed tax reform law will not affect this year’s filing, it is already affecting this year’s earnings. Perhaps it may be interesting to review what the Bible says about taxes and correlate it with both current and future tax law comparisons. An article entitled “The Bible and Taxes”, on the “WallBuilders” website and accessed via https://wallbuilders.com/the-bible-and-taxes/, on 03 March 2018, provides the comparison of the current tax law to what the Bible says about taxes. To maintain currency with the recently passed new tax law, a series of articles collectively entitled “The New Tax Law”, published as Section R in the Wall Street Journal on 14 February 2018 was referenced.
DISCUSSION: Of the many forms of taxation, those on profits, on earnings, on wages, and on estates impact both Christians and non-Christians alike. Last year, this same spiritual growth point looked forward to potential tax reform that has since been passed into law. This year, where relevant, the impact of the new tax law as it relates to the previous Biblical reference is provided. None of the information below is intended to supplant qualified tax advice and consult yet it is still prudent to go to the one constant source for wisdom: His Word.
The capital gains tax, a tax on profits, penalizes a person for success by exacting payment for increased profit. Conversely, in the Bible there is more reward for more profit. The parable of the minas in Luke 19:12-27, and the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 both conflict with the notion of a tax on capital gains. From the parable of the talents, Verses 27-29: “Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.’” Thus, the Bible implies that those who do well (e.g. invest) with what they have will be given more. Regarding captial gains, in the new tax law, “…rates and brackets are similar to those in effect for 2017.”
The parable of the landowner and laborers in Matthew 20:1-16 is applicable to the employer/employee relationship and the issue of wages. “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” James 5:4 offers additional insight: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” The current income tax structure is highly progressive and mandates a higher tax rate or percentage the more a person makes. Since the wages an employer can pay, and the wages an employee receives are affected by taxes, connections to tax law can be made. Changes in payroll witholding stemming from the new tax law “began to show up in early February”. While changes to paychecks do not directly reflect what a taxpayer will owe for the tax year, the Tax Policy Center estimates that the percentage of filers with a tax cut will be “80% compared to an estimate of 5% with a tax increase in 2018”.
The Biblical tithe is not applied progressively, for as stated in Leviticus 27:30-32, “‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord’”. A tithe is essentially regarded as a charitable contribution within tax law. Of note, within the new tax law, the Tax Policy Center expects only “16 million filers to take adavantage of the deduction for tax year 2018, down from 36 million for tax year 2017.” This reduction stems from the fact that the in the new law, the standard deduction level is nearly doubled. For charitable donors a tax break may be realized with the ability to “‘bunch donations every few years” or to use “so-called donor advised funds” which enable donors to ‘bunch’ smaller gifts into one large amount.
The Bible speaks to the issue of inheritance numerous times. Ezekiel 46:18 states, “The prince must not take any of the inheritance of the people, driving them off their property. He is to give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that not one of my people will be separated from their property.” The current estate tax can take up to 55% of an estate, leaving 45% to the children; when those children pass it on to the grandchildren, up to 55% of the remaining 45% can be taken, leaving only 27%
of the original able to be passed on to the following generation. Appearing to move in the right direction, the new tax law, will reduce the number of estates to which the tax will apply. “According to estimates by the Tax Policy Center, about 1,700 estates are expected to owe that tax for 2018 out of about 2.7 million U.S. deaths. For 2017, an estimated 5300 estates owed the tax.”
Of course, once a tax becomes law, the Bible again provides clarity in the Gospels; here within Luke 20:20-26 is cited: “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ He saw through their duplicity and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. He said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.” From Matthew 17:24-27, we learn that Jesus paid tax. Jesus, who as the Son of God would have been exempted from paying the temple tax, agreed to pay the tax not because he owed it but because he did not want to cause offense. From Luke 2:1-5, we learn that Joseph, described in Matthew 1:19 as “a righteous man,” traveled about 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a nine-month pregnant wife, on foot and donkey, to “register” and thus pay his taxes. The Bible also supports the law of tax exemption for work done in service to God. The decree of the Persian King Artaxerxes is recorded in Ezra 7:24 and states, “You are also to know that you have no authority to impose taxes, tribute or duty on any of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants or other workers at this house of God.”
As our government officials are faced with what to do about policies and regulations that impact citizen consumers, let us pray that they would consider the Bible as a source of wisdom.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT: In addition to the verses cited above, what does the Bible say about this topic?
“Speak to the Levites and say to them: ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the Lord’s offering.” Numbers 18:26
“So now I charge you in the sight of all Israel and of the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God: Be careful to follow all the commands of the Lord your God, that you may possess this good land and pass it on as an inheritance to your descendants forever.” I Chronicles 28:8
“For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” 1 Timothy 5:18
ISSUE: Focusing on the Christian aspects of Saint Patrick’s Life.
BACKGROUND: Ireland’s most effective Christian witness was an ex-slave and not even of native Irish stock. The following references were used to develop the discussion below: How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, Talese, Nan A., Doubleday, 1995, Chapters 4 & 5; The 100 Most Important Events In Christian History, by A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, & Randy Peterson, Revell, Fleming H. – A Division of Baker Book House Company, 1998, pp. 47-48, “A Brief History of St. Patrick”, by Monk Preston, The Prayer Foundation, accessed via http://www.prayerfoundation.org/brief_history_of_st_patrick_by_monk_preston.htm on 04 February, 2018.
DISCUSSION: Saint Patrick is one of Christianity’s most interesting figures. Since the March holiday celebrated in his name is often associated with drinking and rowdy behavior, it is important for Christians to understand how God really used Patrick.
Maewyn Succat was born around the year 390 to Christian parents in the Roman part of Britain. Kidnapped at about age sixteen and enslaved in Northern Ireland, he was forced into labor as a swineherd and shepherd. During this captivity he became aware of God. According to his own description at the time, “Tending flocks was my daily work, and I would pray constantly during the daylight hours. The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more—and faith grew and the Spirit roused, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark nearly as many again, even while I remained in the woods or on the mountain. I would pray before daybreak—through snow, frost, rain, –nor was there any sluggishness in me (such as I experience nowadays) because the Spirit within me was ardent.”
Six to eight years later, Maewyn escaped, walking some 200 miles to the coast. Offering his services as a dog tender, he was taken aboard a ship with a cargo of hounds. Finally returning to Britain via Gaul (France), he had dreams of Irish children begging him to bring the Gospel to them. Before returning to the country of his enslavement, he went back to France and studied in a monastery. This was most likely Auxerre although Lerins also claims he studied there. At least one source suggests he studied at both monasteries. Following his studies, he was ordained Priest and later Bishop. Patricius, or Patrick, his baptismal name, was given by Pope Celestine prior to his mission to Ireland.
Bishop Patrick returned to Ireland in the year 432. He began to realize that through his years in slavery, God had given him courage and had helped him understand the Irish people. The Druids, keepers of the old paganism, put up fierce resistance to his evangelizing. According to Patrick’s account from the time, “Everyday I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved—whatever may come my way. But I am not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.”
God orchestrated the events in Patrick’s early life to prepare him for great service. His enslavement had enabled an excellent rapport with the common man. Understanding and drawing upon their nature worship helped him explain Christianity to the Irish people. For example, he used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. Patrick’s ministry ended human sacrifice when contentious tribal people were taught that Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient. Murder and intertribal warfare were reduced and soon the Irish slave trade came to a halt.
The church in Ireland had developed outside the hierarchical system of Rome. Preferring instead to organize around monasteries which better reflected the nation’s tribal system, Patrick evangelized the Irish without relying on the established church. Many years after Patrick’s death in 460, when Western church missionaries came to Ireland, they discovered a thriving Irish faith.
Patrick is credited with establishing around 300 churches and baptizing around 120,000 people. It is commonly agreed that he and his disciples converted almost the entire population of Ireland to Christianity during his life. In the year 1100, Ireland became Catholic when the Pope gave King Henry II sovereignty over Ireland. Impressed with the way Patrick converted the Irish, the Catholic Church made him a Saint.
Since many of his accomplishments are either not well known or incorrectly exaggerated by storytelling, perhaps Christians could use the secular celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day as opportunities to tell the God inspired story of Maewyn Succat’s life.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT: What does the Bible say about this topic?
“…Acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you…” I Chronicles 29:9
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,…” Isaiah 61:1
“In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power…” Acts 19:20
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:10
ISSUE: Who was Saint Valentine?
BACKGROUND: The story of Saint Valentine, the patron of love and marriage, is both interesting and confusing, yet it is a story that is worth Christian awareness. The following references were used to develop the information in this article: Thurston, H. (1912). “St. Valentine”, In The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, New York, accessed on line via New Advent at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15254a.htm on January 7th, 2018; Kithcart, David, Features Director for the 700 Club; “St. Valentine, The Real Story” accessed via The Christian Broadcasting Network at: http://www1.cbn.com/st-valentine-real-story on January 7th, 2018 and “Saint Valentine – Patron of Love, Young People, Happy Marriages”, accessed via Catholic Online at: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=159 on January 7th, 2018.
DISCUSSION: Chocolate candy, flowers, red hearts, and love notes are popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day. Today’s Valentine customs centered around this special day actually originated during the Middle Ages with the belief that halfway through the second month of the year (i.e. 14 February), birds began to pair and the pairing could be symbolically connected to a very familiar and normal human endeavor. Thus, in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”. The day was viewed as a proper occasion for lovers to write love letters and send tokens of their love to each other. French and English literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reference the practice.
Yet both the origins and the customs, carried forward to today, leave unanswered, “Who was Saint Valentine?” At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are historically mentioned in association with the date of 14 February. One is described as a priest in Rome, and another as bishop of Interamna, or modern Terni, a city in the southern portion of the Region of Umbria in central Italy. Both of these Saints seem to have suffered in the second half of the third century and are said to have been buried, albeit at different locations, along the Flaminian Way or “Via Flaminia”, an ancient road leading from Rome, over the mountains to the Adriatic Sea. Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.
Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine. In the Roman Catholic Church, the name “Valentinus” does not occur in the earliest list of Roman martyrs, compiled by the Chronographer of 354. Yet “Valentinus” can be found in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a list of Christian martyrs, compiled from local sources, between 460 and 544. A representation of Saint Valentine also appeared in The Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493. Alongside a woodcut portrait of him, the text states that “Valentinus” was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius the Goth [Claudius II].
Valentinus was likely caught marrying and otherwise aiding Christians who were being persecuted in Rome. Claudius II had announced an edict prohibiting the marriage of young couples. The prohibition was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers since they would naturally be less worried about what might happen to their wives and children should they die in battle. There are indications that Valentinus defied the order of the emperor Claudius, secretly marrying couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. Increasing numbers of soldiers were required, so this did not sit well with Claudius. Another legend is that Valentinus simply refused to sacrifice to pagan gods or to deny Christ.
Regardless, for his “crimes” against Rome, Valentinus was arrested and imprisoned. Several legends exist describing events during his imprisonment. One legend has it that Claudius took a liking to his prisoner, at least until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor, whereupon he was condemned to death. Another legend has it that Valentinus gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers, the jailer’s daughter who was suffering from blindness, was healed. That legend has it that on the day of his execution Valentinus left her a note signed “Your Valentine”. Beaten with clubs and subsequently stoned, Valentinus was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate [circa 269], thus martyred for his heresy.
The feast of Saint Valentine on February 14 was established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among all those “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” Saint Valentine’s Church in Rome, built in 1960 for the needs of the Olympic Village, continues as a modern and well visited if not regularly attended parish church. The Feast of Saint Valentine is an official feast day in the Anglican Communion, as well as in the Lutheran Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, ‘Saint Valentine the Presbyter’ is celebrated on July 6th and ‘Hieromartyr Saint Valentine’ (Bishop of Interamna, Terni in Italy) is celebrated on July 30th. Members of the Greek Orthodox Church named Valentinos (male) or Valentina (female) may celebrate their name day on the Western ecclesiastical calendar date of February 14.
While it is certainly fine to observe the modern day traditions associated with Valentine’s Day, February 14th can be thought of as a celebration in honor of Christian martyrdom. Perhaps Christians should also make it a day of reflection, or even of fasting, to focus on the continued persecution of Christian’s around the world. Afterall, it has been said that the Bible is God’s “love letter” to you, so why not share the greatest “love letter” with those around you this year.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT: What does the Bible say about this topic?
“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” Deuteronomy 7:9
“Continue your love to those who know you, your righteousness to the upright in heart.” Psalm 36:10
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” 1 Corinthians 13:4
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22
ISSUE: Masterpiece Cakeshop Case goes to the Supreme Court.
BACKGROUND: The Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission case has been appealed all the way to the Supreme Court where oral argument was heard on December 5th 2017. A ruling opinion is expected at the end of the Court’s current session in June of 2018. In the interim, since the case has freedom of expression, religious freedom and civil government protection implications, it is important for Christians to inform themselves about the case. The information summarized below is based on, and extracted from, the following articles: “Religious Freedom Is for Christians, Too” by Luke W. Goodrich, Wall Street Journal, December 5th, 2017; “Let Them Not Bake Cake”, Review & Outlook Editorial, December 4th 2017; “Supreme Court seems divided in case of baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple” by Robert Barnes & Ann E. Marimow, Washington Post, December 5th 2017; “The Masterpiece Cakeshop Case Is Not About Religious Freedom” by Jennifer Finney Boylan, New York Times, November 29th, 2017; “Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission”, American Civil Liberties Union, October 31st, 2017, retrieved from www.aclu.org on December 7th, 2017. “Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission”, Alliance Defense Fund, retrieved from www.adflegal.org on December 7th, 2017 – Note, the transcript of the oral argument is available at this site and / or at www.supremecourt.gov also reviewed in support of the development below.
In 1993, Jack Phillips, a Colorado native, opened “Masterpiece Cakeshop” in the community of Lakewood. Mr. Phillips has been a part of major milestone events for many in the community, including young couples who chose their wedding cake at his shop, only to return years later as parents requesting graduation cakes for their children. In July of 2012 two men came into Jack’s cakeshop requesting a wedding cake for their same-sex ceremony. Charlie Craig and David Mullins were from Colorado which did not at that time, recognize same-sex marriages. Charlie and David had made plans to be legally wed in Massachusetts and thereafter to return to Colorado for a celebration with family and friends. They wanted a special cake for the celebration associated with their return to Colorado.
During that first visit, Phillips, who is Christian, declined the couple’s request, informing them that he did not create wedding cakes for same-sex marriages due to his religious beliefs, and offered that the couple could purchase other baked goods including a pre-made cake in the store. The couple left the store without discussing details of the cake design. The following day, Charlie Craig’s mother called Phillips, who told her that he does not make wedding cakes for same-sex weddings. Despite the fact another bakery provided a cake to the couple, Craig and Mullins filed a complaint to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission under the state’s public accommodations law, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), which prohibits businesses open to the public from discriminating against their customers on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
Jack Phillips explained that it wasn’t Charlie Craig and David Mullins that he objected to, but rather the message the cake would send about marriage. Despite that, an administrative law judge ruled against Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop in December 2013. The Commission did not equate designing and creating cakes for same-sex wedding ceremonies to speech protected by the First Amendment. It determined that Phillps had engaged in sexual orientation discrimination under the CADA when he declined to design and create a custom cake honoring a same-sex marriage because doing so conflicts with his sincerely held religious beliefs. Jack Phillips and his staff were ordered to either violate Jack’s faith by designing custom wedding cakes that celebrate same-sex marriages or to stop designing all wedding cakes, which make up approximately 40% of his business.
Colorado is one of twenty-one U.S. states that have anti-discrimination laws against sexual orientation. Craig and Mullins’ complaint resulted in a lawsuit, Craig v. Masterpiece Cakeshop. The case was decided in favor of the plaintiffs and the cake shop was subsequently ordered not only to provide cakes to same-sex marriages, but to “change its company policies, by providing ‘comprehensive staff training‘ regarding public accommodations discrimination”, and “quarterly reports for the next two years regarding the steps it has taken” to come into compliance including data on “whether it has turned away any prospective customers.” Phillips appealed. Along the legal pathway, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) picked up the defense of Phillips case and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) aligned with Craig and Mullins. In 2014, Colorado began allowing same-sex marriages, and in 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that marriage is a fundamental right extending to same-sex couples.
At the next legal level, on August 13th, 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals, unanimously affirmed the Commission’s order, finding no violation of the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses. The Court deemed Phillips’ speech to be mere conduct compelled by a neutral and generally applicable law. It reached this conclusion despite the artistry of Phillips’ cakes and the Commission’s exemption of other cake artists who declined to create custom cakes based on their message. The court also concluded that application of the CADA did not infringe the bakery’s freedom of speech or free exercise of religion.
Because the Colorado Supreme Court denied review, in July 2016, ADF and allied attorneys petitioned the United States Supreme Court to take up Jack’s case. The Supreme Court granted review of the case because “the Court of Appeals analysis (1) flouts this Court’s controlling precedent, (2) conflicts with Ninth and Eleventh Circuit decisions regarding the free speech protection of art, (3) deepens an existing conflict between the Second, Third, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits as to the proper test for identifying expressive conduct, and (4) conflicts with free exercise rulings by the Third, Sixth, and Tenth Circuits.” The question presented to the Supreme Court for Oral Argument on December 5th 2017 involved: “Whether applying Colorado’s public accommodations law to compel Phillips to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment”.
The dispute in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission comes on the heels of two other high-profile religious-freedom cases involving Christians— Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), in which the court said a business couldn’t be forced to pay for contraception in violation of its owners’ religious beliefs, and Zubik v. Burwell, which effectively said the same thing about religious nonprofits, including the Roman Catholic order Little Sisters of the Poor.
The Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from compelling speech or the exercise of religion. Its landmark ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) protected the right of a Jehovah’s Witness not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. In Wooley v. Maynard (1977), the Court said New Hampshire could not compel a Jehovah’s Witness to display the state motto “Live Free or Die” on his license plate since the First Amendment protects “the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority and to refuse to foster . . . an idea they find morally objectionable.”
Cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop were inevitable after the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that guaranteed a right to same-sex marriage. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that “many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises . . . But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied.” States have since compelled florists, photographers, bakers and venue hosts to personally sanction marriages that they find morally objectionable. Those who don’t are stigmatized and in some cases coerced.
While some on the left liken Mr. Phillips to a hotel owner in the Jim Crow era, there’s no evidence of such discrimination. Mr. Phillips and others who have denied wedding services to same-sex nuptials have consistently served gays in other contexts. Mr. Phillips said he would sell the gay couple other baked goods—simply not a custom wedding cake. Mr. Phillips has also consistently conducted his business according to his moral scruples, including refusing to make cakes with vulgar messages, which oddly, the state’s public accommodation law allows. The Masterpiece Cakeshop case raises significant First Amendment concerns. Custom cakes can be construed as artistic expression, which is protected by the First Amendment. Weddings for many people are religious celebrations, and participation—or abstention—is, in itself, an act of expression.
For it’s part, Colorado relies heavily on Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 case in which a Native American sought a religious dispensation under the First Amendment after being fired for smoking peyote. “The right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and neutral law of general applicability,’ ” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. But Colorado’s public accommodation law is not neutrally applied. It is applied selectively to dictate ideological conformity. For instance, the commission has allowed three bakers to deny service to religious customers who requested a cake criticizing same-sex marriage. Thus, the state is punishing forms of speech it dislikes.
The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the government may not enshrine into law any viewpoint that can be used to “demean” or “stigmatize” those with different mores—which is effectively what Colorado has done by censuring Mr. Phillips. Colorado’s Employment Division v. Smith case also stipulated several religious exemptions from generally applicable laws including that “the government may not compel affirmation of religious belief” or “impose special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status.” Yet Colorado does both.
The Masterpiece Cakeshop case pits the government’s interest in social equality against an individual’s constitutional right to express his beliefs. A ruling for Colorado could encourage other government burdens on First Amendment religious rights, especially in this era of right-left cultural polarization. Could the state compel Catholic doctors to perform abortions, or require Catholic adoption services to place children with same-sex couples? As Justice Kennedy noted in Obergefell, the “Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” If this applies to same-sex marriage, which isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, it certainly ought to apply to religious belief, which is there in black and white. You might say a victory for Masterpiece Cakeshop would be a victory for everyone.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT: What does the Bible say about this topic?
“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” Psalm 119:45
“All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” Micah 4:5
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galations 5:1
This Spiritual Growth Point is brought to you by the Men of Grace and was compiled by the Spiritual Growth Committee including Brian Repp, Paul Tucker and Eric Rosenlof who serve as a part of the Men’s Ministry led by Joel Prell.