Interfaith leaders debate free expression, LGBT rights at Constitution Center 

Interfaith leaders debate free expression, LGBT rights at Constitution Center 

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In a night of lively debate that spanned contraception, peyote, the Pledge of Allegiance, free expression, the Johnson Amendment and corporate rights, it was LGBT rights that lit up the National Constitution Center’s stage.

On Sept. 28, three leading legal and religious scholars examined the state of religious freedom in America in “Is Religious Freedom in Trouble? An Interfaith Discussion,” as part of NCC’s ongoing “America’s Town Hall” series.

Panelists included advocate Kristina Arriaga, who formerly worked as the executive director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund has been described as the “legal power” behind the Supreme Court’s controversial 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. Ex-minister and atheist Dan Barker represented the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Rabbi David Saperstein, who has been described by Newsweek as “one of America’s most influential rabbis,” rounded out the debate. HCC president and CEO Jeffrey Rosen moderated the fiery discussion. 

Before a crowded auditorium, the conversation spanned the dense details of religious-freedom cases, dating back to World War II. The participants began with an analysis of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law Saperstein had a hand in crafting, and the relevant law to the Hobby Lobby case.

Arriaga, who worked closed with Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, said, “All they wanted was to continue to pay their employees double the minimum wage but not pay for these four contraceptives.” 

The discussion moved into the pending Supreme Court case that will decide if Colorado baker Jack Phillips has the legal right, based on his right to free expression, to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. 

President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice sided with the baker’s right to refuse the couple, claiming the cake is a form of free artistic expression for the baker. On stage, Arriaga turned the circumstances around, asking, “Would you ask an LGBT person to bake a cake or photograph a wedding for the Westboro Baptist Church?”

Barker pushed back, saying, “The baker runs a place of public accommodation, and anyone who comes into that bakery should expect to be treated the same. We don’t want to say to people, ‘If you don’t want to serve blacks or Latinas or Jews, you don’t have to.’” 

Arriaga responded, “That’s low. Race has a different place in our society.” As the crowd began to murmur, she said, “Horrible things have been done in the name of race, and I don’t think we can compare what’s been done to the African-American community to the LGBT community.” Several members of the audience audibly groaned or called out, “Why?” 

Several audience members in the final segment of the evening asked for further clarification on the cake issue.

“The LGBT community has so many injustices against them, and I understand that,” Arriaga said, “but it’s not up to them to tell that baker what is art or free expression. That’s patronizing and condescending to the baker who thinks it’s a form of art.” 

Saperstein asked, “But tell me how that’s different from denying Jews or Cubans?”

“Because it is,” Arriaga replied. “Racial issues are just different in this country.” 

Again, several members of the audience yelled, loudly, “Why?” 

Sophia Sharpia, one audience member who spoke out, explained why she responded so strongly. 

“I felt like it was a moral obligation, in the moment, to call out [Arriaga’s] rhetoric. I’m a transgender woman, born in East Tennessee, and I can’t even safely visit my hometown at this point. So it felt like a moral obligation to push back.”

“The LGBT community is going through a moment where we are fighting for our freedoms right now,” she added.

Watch the full debate here:

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