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People who say it’s OK to deny service to gay couples believe more in individual rights than religious freedom

People who say it’s OK to deny service to gay couples believe more in individual rights than religious freedom


“It is disingenuous to say this is about religious freedom.”

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Image: Carla Schaffer/ AAAS

Americans who support denying service to gay couples don’t necessarily see the issue as a matter of religious freedom, according to the first national survey on this topic. The survey also found that about half of respondents supported denying service to gay couples, with many people framing the decision in terms of individual rights.

The Supreme Court is now hearing a highly-publicized case — Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — over whether a baker can refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The case is often framed in terms of religious freedom and freedom of expression (since the baker’s cakes are “art.”). Regardless of the Supreme Court case, people who say it’s okay to deny service don’t typically think of it as a religious freedom issue but as one about individual rights, according to the survey results published today in the journal Science Advances. The findings provide insight on how Americans feel about this contentious issue, and suggest we should re-evaluate the motivations for denying service when deciding whether it’s acceptable, according to study co-author Brian Powell, a professor of sociology at Indiana University.

Researchers asked 2,000 people in the US to evaluate whether it was okay for a photographer to refuse to take wedding photos. In different versions, the couple was either same-sex or interracial, the photographer was self-employed or worked for a chain, and his reasoning was either explicitly religious or non-religious (“although he is not religious, he does not approve” of gay rights or interracial marriage).

About 53 percent of respondents said refusing service to a gay couple was acceptable. Racial discrimination is prohibited by law, but nearly 40 percent of respondents also said it was okay to deny service to interracial couples. Crucially, these include people who do support interracial marriage and gay marriage: 61 percent of the respondents supported gay marriage, while 90 percent were in favor of interracial marriage.

Typically, people in support of service denial argued that you should be able to deny for any reason, whether racial or religious. (Nobody mentioned the right to deny based on political views, which has become more relevant regarding the service rights of neo-Nazis.) “Some people said that they thought the photographer’s behavior was really repugnant — well, they used more colorful language than that and it was filled with profanities — but he had a right to do that and in turn we have a right to boycott and protest,” says Powell. “Many people had faith in the idea that in a market economy, discriminatory practices ultimately are going to disappear.”

In the version where the photographer was working for himself as opposed to a chain, 61 percent said it was okay to deny service. But, according to Lowell, nobody said that the photographer, like the baker, was an artist who should be protected under freedom of speech.

Demographically, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to support denial of service (65 percent vs. 30 percent). Notably, black respondents were far more likely to say that denial of service was unacceptable even if they personally opposed gay marriage. “This clearly has to do with their history of being denied service over the years,” says Powell. “It’s the clear historical spillover effect of discriminatory practices they experienced through the years.”

Powell’s next paper will go into more detail over the specific reasons that people support denying service. For now, as SCOTUS hears the cake case, it’s worth thinking about the real motivations behind people’s decisions.