Mayor Pete Will Make You Bake the Cake

Despite calls for pluralism, Buttigieg would force small business owners to violate religious conscience

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg / Getty Images

Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg's public calls for pluralism do not apply to religious small business owners.

South Bend Mayor Buttigieg has made his Episcopalian faith and tolerance a centerpiece of his campaign, but the policies he champions would force religious small business owners to participate in ceremonies they find objectionable under penalty of law. Buttigieg, who is married to a man, will keynote the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner. The nation's largest LGBT lobbying group credited his support for the Equality Act for the invitation.

"Buttigieg is an outspoken advocate of the Equality Act—critically important, bipartisan legislation that would finally provide clear protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people across the country," HRC said in a Tuesday release.

House Democrats introduced the Equality Act in March. It would strike down religious freedom protections for private citizens if they exercised their consciences in running their own businesses. It is designed to trump Religious Freedom Restoration Acts at the state and federal level, according to critics. Greg Baylor, director of the Center for Religious Schools at the non-profit Alliance Defending Freedom, said he agrees that "our laws should respect the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of every citizen," but said the legislation "fails to meet this basic standard."

"This federal law would force Americans to participate in events and speak messages that violate their core beliefs," he said. "We should reject laws that single out and punish citizens on the basis of their peacefully expressed beliefs."

The Buttigieg campaign did not respond to requests for comment. The mayor had previously weighed in on the debate over coercing religious believers to participate in gay marriages. He tweeted out his opposition to a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was sponsored by then-Rep. Chuck Schumer (D., NY), unanimously passed the House, and cleared the Senate 97-3 before Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993.

"Not aware of many same-sex couples around South Bend demanding homophobic bakers supply their weddings," he said.

ADF, a pro-bono law firm, specializes in religious liberty cases. In June, it won a victory in the Supreme Court defending the rights of Masterpiece Cakeshop proprietor Jack Phillips. The Colorado-based baker had been dragged before state authorities for discrimination because he refused to customize a cake for a gay wedding ceremony, though he did offer to supply several standard cakes on display to the couple. The 7-2 decision found that the state improperly punished Phillips.

"Like similar state and local laws that have been used to prosecute cake artist Jack Phillips and florist Barronelle Stutzman, this federal law would force Americans to participate in events and speak messages that violate their core beliefs," Baylor said. "Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a diverse society like ours."

Buttigieg has criticized RFRA laws in the past. He announced that he was gay in a 2015 op-ed in the South Bend Tribune by highlighting his opposition to the "disastrous" law, which was signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence. He has at the same time emphasized the need for religious tolerance, telling the Intercept that "cynical politicians have stoked" intolerance of Muslim believers "which only plays into the logic of terrorism that is designed to distance us from our own values and undermine pluralism in our country."

He has at the same time hinted at his suspicion of fellow Americans, saying in a campaign video that it is not just the government that can hinder freedom in the United States. "We know that your neighbor can make you unfree," he said.

Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, said that Buttigieg should extend his tolerance to his fellow Christians or members of other faiths that may disagree about the sexual revolution. Schilling said the Equality Act is designed to silence opponents and undermined Buttigieg's image as a centrist candidate in a crowded Democratic field.

"Pete Buttigieg is entitled to his beliefs on sexual ethics," Schilling said. "What Americans have a problem with is when those beliefs are used as an excuse to harm other people."

Other religious liberty groups are worried that a Buttigieg administration could constrain the rights of believers to operate their own businesses. First Liberty Institute is now petitioning the Supreme Court to hear the case of the Klein family, devout Christians who were forced to shut down their bakery after Oregon authorities pursued discrimination charges against them.

"No one in this country should be forced to choose between their conscience and their livelihood. Any politician supporting the Equality Act is sending a clear message that what happened in Oregon to our clients, the Kleins, should be spread to all fifty states," institute spokesman Lathan Watts said.

Baylor, of Alliance Defending Freedom, said Buttigieg and his allies should recognize the free speech rights of all citizens, rather than attempt to bully them into silence.

"Disagreement on important matters such as marriage and human sexuality is not discrimination," Baylor said. "We should reject laws that single out and punish citizens on the basis of their peacefully expressed beliefs."

Buttigieg's speech to the Human Rights Campaign dinner is scheduled for May 11 at Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas.