Religious liberty and social justice: Where do we draw the line?

By on April 2, 2019

Quinnipiac students and faculty gathered Wednesday, March 27, at the North Haven campus to discuss the limits of religious freedom at Quinnipiac University School of Law (QUSL) Federalist Society’s penultimate event of the school year, Religious Liberty: Why It Is Important.

The event featured Attorney Tyson Langhofer, who serves as senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), and Quinnipiac Law’s own Professor Kevin Barry. The two men discussed the fine line between protecting religious freedoms and protecting the rights of marginalized groups.

Owen Meech | The Quinnipiac Chronicle
“America today is deeply divided,” Langhofer said in his introduction. “First Amendment rights depend on a robust exchange of the broadest beliefs. Dissenting and unpopular beliefs must be heard.”

Langhofer, who has represented college students nationwide in defending First Amendment rights, framed his talk around the story of Jack Phillips – the baker at the center of the famous Supreme Court case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018).

The case rose to prominence after Phillips refused to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple based on his religious beliefs. Subsequently, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that Phillips had discriminated against the couple under Colorado anti-discrimination law.

With ADF, Langhofer worked with Phillips on his case. He called him a “man guided by genuine faith.”

Langhofer stressed that Phillips serves all customers regardless of their sexual orientation, but could not bake the wedding cake specifically because it would require him to promote a message through his artwork that did not align with his religious views.

After Phillips took the case the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court ruled on narrow grounds that the Commission did not employ religious neutrality, violating Phillips’ right to free exercise. In a 7-2 decision, the Court reversed the Commission’s prior ruling.

“The state can’t apply one rule to views it doesn’t like and another rule to views it does like,” Langhofer explained. “The Supreme Court has never compelled someone to express views against one’s beliefs.”

Langhofer also noted the case began to turn in Phillips’ favor after two members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission were heard on a recording comparing him to a Nazi. The recording was used to demonstrate bias and hostility directed at Phillips at the hands of the Commission.

Protecting the free expression of unpopular beliefs is also about preventing a slippery slope and refusing to cede to the government the ability to censor whatever it chooses, according to Langhofer.

“The government cannot prohibit or force individual speech a majority wishes to cease,” Langhofer said. “No matter your conviction, we sink or swim together.”

Langhofer emphasized, however, that First Amendment debates should be handled with mutual respect and tolerance.

“We must protect the right to disagree,” Langhofer said. “Civil liberties travel together.”

Professor Barry, who teaches administrative disability law at Quinnipiac, opened his rebuttal by calling the issues “deeply and emotionally painful.”

In a gesture to Langhofer, Barry admitted the two men disagree on many topics, but come together in their “mutual dislike for the bully.”

Barry followed up by posing the question of who, in fact, is the bully: the government or the individual? According to Barry, the answer can be found in the form of an anti-subordination model.

“Subordination is systematic and based on a trait,” Barry said. “The three components are prejudice, stereotypes and neglect.”

Barry defined societal neglect as the failure to anything about excluded groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community.

“As a white, straight, cis man, I have never been subordinated,” Barry said before going on to explain his support for the gay couple who was denied a wedding cake by Masterpiece Cakeshop.

According to Barry, Phillips’ policies promote the marginalization of a victimized community, and his religious beliefs go too far.

“Religion is not fixed or immune to change,” Barry said. “Religions have abandoned things in the past like racism and slavery.”

Barry believes true justice for all, however, will only come to fruition when law catches up to society.

“Law looks a bit like a war,” Barry explained. “Culture looks a bit more like a parade.”

Despite Langhofer and Barry’s differences, Barry promotes love and maintains a positive outlook regarding social change.

“A key ingredient for every civil rights movement is love,” Barry concluded.

Cameron Atkinson, vice president of public relations for QUSL’s Federalist Society, was pleased with the turnout at the event. Putting the ADF’s positions on social issues aside, Atkinson said he appreciated Langhofer’s argument.

“Attorney Langhofer did an excellent job emphasizing that religious liberty, free speech and freedom of association are the most fundamental rights that our Constitution protects, but a line can be drawn very carefully to protect LGBT rights,” Atkinson said. “If government can limit these rights in the name of diversity, it can also limit them to the fatal detriment of diverse communities. His First Amendment arguments on religious liberty and free speech provide a lot of food for thought.”

In an official statement, Atkinson emphasized that QUSL Federalist Society does not take positions on issues. Rather, its “mission is to engage, in retired Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words, ‘open and searching debate’ so individuals can weigh opinions and decide for themselves.”

“This debate today was a continuation of our commitment to civil, yet spirited, debate on tough and important issues,” Atkinson said. “I am glad to see that many of our colleagues continue to join us in that debate.”

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