Cakes, Playgrounds, and Conservative Hypocrisy on Religious Liberty

Many conservatives back freedom for religious business owners but not for taxpayers when it comes to matters of conscience.

Many conservatives are logically inconsistent when it comes to religious liberty, as their positions on two prominent legal cases illustrate.

In its June 26 Trinity Lutheran Church decision, the Supreme Court ruled that religious groups must be considered for the same grants and other “public benefits” (here involving work to playgrounds) available to nonreligious groups. Most conservatives applauded this decision (which I’ve criticized elsewhere).

On the same day, the Supreme Court announced it would hear the case regarding Masterpiece Bakeshop of Colorado, the owner of which refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Most conservatives think business owners should not be legally punished for declining service for purposes at odds with their beliefs (and I agree).

The story for why these positions supposedly are compatible goes something like this: People with church-affiliated organizations should be free to practice their religion without suffering loss of grants and the like, and business owners should be free to follow their religious beliefs while working.

But there is a huge difference between the cases that the conservatives in question ignore. Tax-funded grants (and such) inherently involve money that rightly belongs to other people, whereas a person’s business morally belongs to that person. Laying claim to other people’s property hardly is equivalent to laying claim to one’s own property, and those are the issues at stake.

So what the conservatives under review actually believe is this: Religious business owners must not be forced to provide services for purposes of which they disapprove, yet taxpayers must be forced to help finance religious purposes of which they disapprove.

In short, such conservatives call for the protection of religious liberty for some (Christian bakers and the like) and the violation of religious liberty for others (taxpayers who do not wish to help finance a religiously affiliated project).

One might argue that most leftists also hold contradictory positions here, in that they want to force bakers to bake cakes for gay weddings but not force taxpayers to subsidize religious organizations.

The difference is that leftists don’t pretend to respect rights to property, contract, and wealth, so their positions aren’t really contradictory. Conservatives do often pretend to respect such rights. Yet, with respect to the two cases at hand, many conservatives want to have their religious liberty and eat it too.

Image: Phil Whitehouse