Gary Johnson goofs on religious freedom

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Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson is seen during an interview before a rally in New York, on September 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson is seen during an interview before a rally in New York, on September 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich

(RNS) Interviewed by CBN’s David Brody this week, Libertarian presidential candidate offered a Solomonic reading of religious liberty law as it relates to bakers who don’t want to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples.

“In the case of the bakers, the bakers have to sell the cake but the baker doesn’t have to decorate the cake,” Johnson said. “That’s the First Amendment that comes to play. You don’t have to decorate the cake but you are in business so you got to sell that cake.”

So, pursued Brody, “you are saying the Christian business owner would have to sell the wedding cake …”

“But doesn’t have to decorate, yes,” Johnson replied. “That’s the reality of the law.”

Actually, that isn’t the reality of the law. The reality of the law is, at the moment, that the baker has to to decorate as well as sell the cake.

The baker now in question is Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, who four years ago turned down a gay couple’s request for a wedding cake because of his Christian beliefs.

The couple took the case to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and ultimately prevailed in the Colorado courts. Phillips is now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

In the public square, the bakers (and florists and photographers) who want to withhold their services from same-sex weddings are all about freedom of religion. But in the courts, the arguments are increasingly about freedom of speech.

The central question has become whether it is unconstitutional state-compelled speech for a commercial enterprise to be required to (for example) decorate a cake with the words, “Congratulations, Adam and Steve!”

Who do you understand to be speaking here? The baker? The wedding attendees? Whoever bought the cake? The question remains to be definitively decided.

But Gary Johnson’s imagined distinction between having to sell a cake but not having to decorate one is unlikely to satisfy anyone.

Gay couples will want their decorated cakes even as Jack Phillips considers the entire business of baking and decorating a wedding cake to be one and the same artistic thing.

And I can’t even imagine how such a distinction would apply to florists and photographers.