With obvious repercussions for entrepreneurs (and their employees) across the U.S., President Donald Trump may soon make good on his campaign promises to religious conservatives.
The Supreme Court, on Monday, agreed to hear an appeal from a Lakewood, Colorado bakery, called Masterpiece Cakeshop, that has religious objections to same-sex marriage. Previously, in 2015, a local court had ruled against the store's owner, Jack Phillips, who in 2012 refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. That couple--David Mullins and Charlie Craig (pictured above)--had proceeded to file discrimination charges. "Masterpiece does not convey a message supporting same-sex marriages merely by abiding by the law and serving its customers equally," the court insisted at the time.
Phillips was not immediately available to comment for this story.
The news comes just weeks after federal officials drafted a rule to relax an Obamacare mandate that religious companies cover birth control, or other forms of contraception that might violate the owners' closely-held religious beliefs. Also last month, President Trump signed an executive order on "religious liberty," which relaxed Internal Revenue Service enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a law banning religious organizations from political speech or activities. The executive order also claims to give "regulatory relief" to businesses that object to the Obamacare birth control mandate.
These moves suggest the U.S. government is warming to religious businesses--a scenario either welcome or troubling for many entrepreneurs.
Back in March, a number of entrepreneurs celebrated International Women's Day by closing shop entirely, and protesting some of President Trump's proposals that would do away with key protections for women and LGBTQ communities--like being served by a business regardless of your background.
Echoing that concern is Mara Gandal-Powers, a senior counselor of reproductive rights and health at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. "For us, we see [the Supreme Court case] as part of a larger trend that is related to what's going on with birth control. Businesses are being allowed to use religion to discriminate against people. Here, it's using your religion to discriminate against people who are customers," says Gandal-Powers, who has worked with thousands of women whose employers object to covering the cost of birth control.
A moral argument
Still, many religious entrepreneurs welcome the Administration's efforts. Beverly Solomon, the co-founder of a small design firm called Musee Solomon based outside of Austin, Texas, anticipates a reduction in expenses for companies like hers, should the Obamacare mandate end. The business, which works with around 50 regular clients, sells original artwork starting at $5,000, and up to $30,000 for installation and other services.
"It is disgusting that businesses have been forced to do a wide range of things to which they object on moral and religious grounds that cost money directly and/or in added paperwork," Solomon tells Inc., referring in particular to the ACA birth control mandate. "The less government restrictions the better for business," she adds.
Besides Masterpiece Cakeshop, a number of mom-and-pop businesses have refused regular services to same-sex couples for religious reasons, and subsequently appealed discrimination rulings. Baronnelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, Washington, lost a similar case before Washington's Supreme Court in April and will likely seek review from the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, back in 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, the owners of Elane Photography in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which refused to photograph a lesbian wedding. All three businesses are being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Business and beliefs
Other business owners hedge on specific issues, but generally agree that there should not be 'separation' between religious beliefs and business. Bob Walker, the CEO of Walker Manufacturing, says he approaches the company with a philosophy of "applied Christianity." Walker Manufacturing booked around $60 million in revenue last year, selling commercial-grade lawn mowers. Walker's father, Max Walker, had launched the business sixty years ago, though Bob and his brother took over from him in the early 1990s.
"When my Dad started building the company, he would apply Christian principles to the way he worked," says Walker. "I saw a lot of those qualities in my Dad, and that inspired me and my brother to continue to work in the same way that we'd seen in our parents." Walker Manufacturing does offer birth control as part of health insurance plans--though the entrepreneur admits that if the government were to require his company to offer abortion benefits, he would object on religious grounds.
"In the earlier years, people tended to want to separate their life in compartments, but I'm glad that model has gone away," he adds. "It should go away, because the most healthy way to live is to be a whole person, no matter where you're at."
It should be noted that the Colorado, Washington and New Mexico cases are not the first examples of companies rejecting business from certain groups of people on what they claim are moral or religious grounds. Some see the notion of refusing service to gay customers as similar to when companies denied service to African-Americans, prior to the Civil Rights movement: "It's not unprecedented to see businesses say they don't want business from a certain sort of people," says Gandal-Powers, the NWLC counselor. "This is what de-segregation was all about. Businesses not wanting to serve non-white customers was not all that different."
The Supreme Court will hear the Masterpiece Cakeshop case sometime in its next term, which begins in October.