BGLTQ Scholar Discusses Religious Liberty Conflicts

Though same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide in 2015, the country continues to see legal conflicts between religious liberty and BGLTQ rights, Wayne State University professor John F. Corvino argued at the Law School Friday.

A BGLTQ rights activist and philosophy scholar, Corvino discussed cases like the 2012 Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which a baker refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because of his religious convictions. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case during its upcoming term, raising new questions about religious liberty and discrimination.

“I don’t think of it in terms of distinctions between religious liberty and discrimination. The concern was cases where religious liberty might justify discrimination,” Corvino stated.

Corvino argued that if businesses were granted a religious exemption to anti-discrimination laws when it came to refusing wedding cakes for same-sex couples, it could easily create a “slippery slope” where they could begin refusing other products as well. He cautioned against religious exemptions becoming what he called “state-sanctioned discrimination.”

Delineating what constitutes free speech versus discrimination, Corvino argued there was a difference between refusing service based on the product and refusing service based on the customer. The former, he said, would be the business’s freedom to choose their products, while the latter would be discrimination against certain buyers.

Corvino added that the United States is a nation that takes religion seriously: In addition to being an important part of the country’s constitutional tradition, he said, it has proven to be a site of conflict, often stirring disagreements over religion’s influence on governmental policies.

In response to this discord, Corvino proposed ways to begin meaningful discourse on religious liberty, as opposed to dismissing people as “bigots.”

“Calling [people] ‘bigots’ functions as a kind of conversation stopper, often precisely at the moment when we need more conversation,” he said.

As a step towards meaningful discourse, Corvino suggested creating relationships between the parties that disagree.

“When you build those relationships, you then create the level of trust that allows you to enter into a deeper dialogue, so that you’re not just defensively putting forth talking points for fear of losing the argument,” Corvino noted.

Corvino—who recently published a co-authored book, “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination”said he hopes to continue this discourse and encourage more conversations across the ideological spectrum. “One of the things I really enjoyed about doing the book and doing projects similar to this is not just engaging in the arguments, but building relationships and getting to know people,” he said.

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