The Journal Gazette
Thursday, December 28, 2017 1:00 am


Unsettling trend. Equality survey finds nation has far to go

When the U.S. Supreme Court rules sometime next year on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, some observers argue the decision will hinge on religious freedom rights. But a just-released national survey by Indiana University sociologists finds many Americans believe a business owner should be allowed to refuse service to some customers – and not just over religious objections. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said they support a business owner's right to refuse service to an interracial couple.

“The finding challenges the idea that denial of service to same-sex couples is all about religious freedom,” Brian Powell, the James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology and lead author of the study, said in a news release. “People may oppose same-sex marriage because of their beliefs, but their views about denial of service have nothing to do with whether the denial is for religious reasons.”

The survey results become a gut check for those who thought the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision marked a turning point in the acceptance of same-sex marriage, but also a gut check for those insisting the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is about protection of First Amendment rights. When Jack C. Phillips refused to sell a wedding cake to Charlie Craig and David Mullins, he took a stand many people believe the business owner was entitled to take for any reason – not simply because Craig and Mullins are gay. The Colorado baker has said he would sell the couple anything in his store but a wedding cake because gay marriage is a violation of his faith.

While it's interesting to learn most Americans are more concerned with an individual business owner's rights than with any threat to religious freedom, the survey's findings are more troubling for what they say about views on race. Is it any wonder we still grapple with racial issues when 61 percent of those surveyed said a self-employed photographer should be allowed to refuse service to an interracial couple?

Sixty-one percent of the respondents also said they support gay marriage and 90 percent expressed support for interracial marriage, but the results found broad support for an individual business owner's right to deny public accommodation on both fronts. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin for more than a half-century, yet a majority of those surveyed support an individual business owner's right to discriminate.

The IU-Bloomington study, a representative sample of 2,000 Americans, was designed to determine public views on the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and protections for religion and free speech. Discussion of the pending Supreme Court case has brought welcome attention to those First Amendment rights. Views expressed in the survey, however, show the need for a refresher course in the importance of equality for all Americans.

In a June 1964 floor speech in support of the Civil Rights Act, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen cited the landmark legislation as “an idea whose time has come.”

“The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education and in employment,” said the Illinois Republican. “It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.”

Or, maybe not.

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