Prayer in schools, New Guidance from the White House to Protect Students’ Rights

Folded hands over Bible.

By Kami Klein

Prayer in schools is a hot button topic but receives very little attention from mainstream media. Last week on National Religious Freedom Day this issue received the White House’s full attention when President Trump announced that it is taking action to further safeguard students’ constitutionally protected right to pray in school.

In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that leading public prayer in classrooms violated a First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a government religion. Contrary to popular myth, the Supreme Court has never outlawed “prayer in schools.” Students are free to pray alone or in groups, as long as such prayers are not disruptive and do not infringe upon the rights of others. But this right “to engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate.” (This is the language supported by a broad range of civil liberties and religious groups in a joint statement of current law.)

In a White House article, The Department of Education has said that it is proposing additional regulations and guidance, including a regulation laying out that “a public institution of higher education cannot deny a religious student group the same benefits, privileges and rights that other secular student groups have.” With the updated guidance on prayer in public schools, the department will also be “fulfilling a statutory requirement to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.” This guidance is required to be updated every two years but hasn’t been updated since 2003. The guidance will now spell out processes for reporting allegations of religious discrimination in schools to the department.

Foremost on the guidance are requirements giving education providers and students the most current information concerning prayer in public schools. This update will help safeguard students’ rights to prayer, making clear that students can read religious books and material or pray during recess and other non-instructional periods, organize prayer groups, and express their religious beliefs in their assignments.

Local educational agencies must confirm that their policies do not prevent or interfere with the constitutionally-protected rights outlined in the guidance in order to receive Federal funds This new action will also help improve individuals’ ability to file a complaint if they are denied participation in protected religious expression.

To ensure that the Nation’s religious organizations are treated equally by the Federal government the administration is also issuing nine proposed rules to protect religious organizations from unfair and unequal treatment by the Federal government. The proposed rules would eliminate burdensome requirements that unfairly imposed unique regulatory burdens only on religious organizations.

Federal agencies will also be receiving a memo requiring them to safeguard grantmaking practices of state recipients of Federal funding to comply with the First Amendment to ensure religious organizations can compete on a level playing field for funding without discrimination.

During his first year in office, President Trump signed an Executive Order upholding religious liberty and the right to engage in religious speech as well as signing an Executive Order recognizing the essential contributions of faith-based organizations and establishing the Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

Last year, President Trump hosted a Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom event at the United Nations and called on the international community and business leaders to work to protect religious freedom around the world.

Resources:  CNNWhite House Government briefing Freedom Forum Institute Voice of America 

Russia widens Jehovah’s Witnesses crackdown with new jailings

Adherents of the Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses Konstantin Bazhenov, Alexei Budenchuk, Felix Makhammadiev, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German and Alexei Miretsky pose for a picture inside the building of a regional court in Saratov, Russia in this undated handout photo. Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDI

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has widened a crackdown against Jehovah’s Witnesses, jailing six adherents of the Christian denomination for extremism in a move rights activists said was unjust and flouted religious freedom.

A regional court in Saratov jailed six Jehovah’s Witnesses on Thursday for up to three-and-a-half years, a court spokeswoman said on Friday.

“Yes they were convicted,” the spokeswoman, Olga Pirueva, said. “Punishments ranged from three years and six months down to two years (in jail).”

The court found the six men guilty of continuing the activities of an extremist organization, a reference to a 2017 ruling from Russia’s Supreme Court which found the group to be an “extremist” organization and ordered it to disband.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

The latest jailings follow the conviction in February of a Danish builder in Russia for his association with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dennis Christensen was found guilty of organizing an extremist group and jailed for six years.

Over 250 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are facing criminal charges, according to the group, with 41 in detention and 23 under house arrest.

‘SPECULATIVE THESIS’

Under Thursday’s ruling, Konstantin Bazhenov and Alexei Budenchuk were sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail, Felix Makhammadiev to three years, and Roman Gridasov, Gennady German, and Alexei Miretsky to two years in prison each.

The court also banned them from holding leadership positions in public organizations for five years.

Jehovah’s Witnesses say Russia’s constitution guarantees their adherents’ right to exercise freedom of religion and deny wrongdoing.

“The whole logic of the accusation was based on the speculative thesis that faith in God is ‘a continuation of the activities of an extremist organization’,” Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

“Instead of searching and proving the guilt of the defendants, the aim of the investigation was to prove their religious affiliation, despite the fact that no religion is prohibited in Russia.”

Lawyers for the men plan to appeal what they regard as absurd convictions, said Lopes.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Rachel Denber of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch condemned the court’s ruling, saying the men had been jailed for nothing.

“They should be freed,” Denber said on social media.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Vatican defends confessional secret as sexual abuse crisis stings

FILE PHOTO: A general view of St. Peter's square as Pope Benedict XVI conducts a special mass in Vatican City in this October 21, 2012 file photograph. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini /Files

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican on Monday reaffirmed Catholic teaching that priests cannot reveal what they learn in confession, in an apparent response to moves in Australia and elsewhere to force them to do so in cases of sexual abuse.

A document from the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, which deals with issues of the sacrament of confession, said no government or law could force clergy to violate the seal “because this duty comes directly from God.”

The document, which did not mention any countries or the sexual abuse crisis, complained of a “worrying negative prejudice against the Catholic Church”.

Most countries’ legal systems respect the religious right of a Catholic priest not to reveal what he has learned in confession, similar to attorney-client privilege.

But the sexual abuse crisis that has embroiled the Catholic Church around the world has seen this right challenged more frequently.

In Australia, an inquiry into child abuse recommended that the country introduce a law forcing religious leaders to report child abuse, including priests told of it during confession.

So far, two of Australia’s eight states have introduced laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard in confession. Others are still considering their response.

In May, the California state Senate passed a bill to require the seal of confession to be broken if a priest learns of or suspects sexual abuse while hearing the confession of a fellow priest or a colleague such as a Church worker.

Church leaders in both the United States and Australia have opposed such laws and the document backed them up unequivocally.

“Any political action or legislative initiative aimed at breaking the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offence against the (freedom of the Church),” the document said.

“(The Church) does not receive its legitimacy from individual States, but from God; it (breaking the seal) would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, legally fundamental to all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors,” it said.

Victims advocates said the lifting of the seal of confession, even partially, was drastic but necessary under the circumstances.

“As a Catholic, I too am shaken by incursions on the seal of confession. But it’s the leaders of the Catholic church, not civil society, that have gotten us to this point,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the U.S.-based abuse tracking group BishopAccountability.org.

“Secret church files made public in Australia and the United States reveal many instances of confession being used to absolve an abuser, allowing him to remain in ministry and re-offend,” she told Reuters in an email.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella with additional reporting by Tom Westbrook in Sydney; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Larry King)

Morocco’s hidden Christians see Pope trip as chance to push for freedom

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis is seen during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File Photo

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Moroccan converts to Christianity, a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, are looking to Pope Francis’ visit next week as an chance to press their demands for religious freedom.

Francis will spend two days in Rabat on his first trip to the North African country from March 30-31 – the first visit there by any pope in nearly 35 years.

He will spend time with Roman Catholics – most of them expatriate Europeans, mainly French, and sub-Saharan African migrants – who are free to worship in churches such as the capital’s art deco St. Peter’s Cathedral.

But unlike those “foreign Christians”, Moroccan converts say they are forced to worship at home, in secret. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is banned – as it is in many Muslim countries – and proselytizing is punishable by up to three years in prison.

One group backing them – the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms – has already written to the Vatican, raising its concerns, and it is planning a sit-in outside a church in Rabat on the eve of the visit.

“We want laws that protect religious minorities in the country on an equal footing,” the head of the association, Jawad El Hamidy, said.

“We will seize the pope’s visit to put more pressure on the state to protect religious freedoms.”

“NO DISCRIMINATION”

Morocco has marketed itself as an oasis of religious tolerance in a region torn by militancy – and has offered training to Muslim preachers from Africa and Europe on what it describes as moderate Islam.

Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi said the authorities did not violate religious freedoms. “There is no persecution in Morocco and there is no discrimination on the basis of faith,” he told reporters when asked about the accusations.

But converts point to the constitution, which formally recognizes the existence of Moroccan Muslims and Jews – but not of Moroccan Christians. They also point to their day-to-day experience.

“When I went to a church to declare my faith, I was told that I was prohibited to do so by Moroccan law,” said a 40-year-old Moroccan Christian who gave his name as Emmanuel and asked not be shown while filmed.

“We call on Moroccan authorities and the Holy Father to seize the opportunity offered by this papal visit to launch a sincere dialogue on religious freedom for Moroccan citizens,” the Coordination of Moroccan Christians, a local lobby group, said.

There are no official statistics, but leaders say there are about 50,000 Moroccan Christians, most of them from the Protestant Evangelical tradition – outnumbering the estimated 30,000 Roman Catholics in the country.

There was no immediate response from the Vatican to the Association’s letter. But the most senior Roman Catholic in Morocco – the Archbishop of Rabat, Cristobal Lopez Romero – offered his support.

“We as Catholic Christians appreciate that we fully enjoy the freedom of faith but we will be happier if the Moroccan people could also enjoy that,” the Spanish cleric told reporters.

“I would love to be able to become Moroccan without having to change my religion.”

(Editing by Ulf Laessing, Philip Pullella and Andrew Heavens)

Russia jails Dane for six years in Jehovah’s Witnesses purge

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Wednesday found a Danish adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses guilty of organizing a banned extremist group and jailed him for six years in a case critics condemn as crushing religious freedom.

Armed police detained Dennis Christensen, a 46-year-old builder, in May 2017 at a prayer meeting in Oryol, some 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow after a court in the region outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses a year earlier.

Russia’s Supreme Court later ruled the group was “extremist” and ordered it to disband nationwide. Christiansen’s detention, Russia’s first extremism-related arrest of a Jehovah’s Witness, foreshadowed dozens more.

The court in the city of Oryol on Wednesday found Christiansen guilty after a long trial, his lawyer, his wife and a representative for the Jehovah’s Witnesses told Reuters.

Christiansen had pleaded innocent, saying he was exercising freedom of religion guaranteed in Russia’s constitution.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen called on Moscow to respect religious freedom and criticized it for classifying Jehovah’s Witnesses on a par with terrorist groups.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

DOZENS MORE CAUGHT IN CRACKDOWN

But Russia’s latest falling-out with the West, triggered by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, spurred a more determined drive to push out “the enemy within”.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Christiansen moved to Murmansk in northern Russia in 2000 where the Jehovah’s Witnesses were already well established and met his wife Irina there. The couple later moved to Oryol because the climate is milder and housing cheaper.

He speaks Russian and says he is a fan of Russian culture.

Anton Bogdanov, Christiansen’s lawyer, said he planned to appeal Wednesday’s verdict, which he termed illegal and feared would set a dangerous precedent.

More than 100 criminal cases have been opened against Jehovah’s Witnesses, with another 24 people in prison awaiting or on trial and a similar number under house arrest. Some of their publications are on a list of banned literature.

Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the verdict evoked the atheist Soviet period when Moscow persecuted the group.

“In essence we have returned to Soviet times,” said Sivulsky, whose own father Pavel was jailed for seven years in 1959 for printing bible literature. “It’s sad that in the 21st century people are being jailed for holding what the authorities believe to be the wrong beliefs.”

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said there were clearly reasons for Christiansen’s arrest but he was unaware of details.

Irina, Christiansen’s wife, said she and her husband were calm despite what they saw as an injustice. Before the verdict, she said state TV had nurtured existing widespread prejudice in Russian society against Jehovah’s Witnesses, a strategy she said helped distract people from low living standards.

(Additonal reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and by Andreas Mortensen and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen; Editing by Christian Lowe)

China outlaws large underground Protestant church in Beijing

FILE PHOTO: The head pastor of the Zion church in Beijing Jin Mingri poses for picures in the lobby of the unofficial Protestant "house" church in Beijing, China, August 28, 2018. Picture taken August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing city authorities have banned one of the largest unofficial Protestant churches in the city and confiscated “illegal promotional materials”, amid a deepening crackdown on China’s “underground” churches.

The Zion church had for years operated with relative freedoms, hosting hundreds of worshippers every weekend in an expansive specially renovated hall in north Beijing.

But since April, after they rejected requests from authorities to install closed-circuit television cameras in the building, the church has faced growing pressure from the authorities and has been threatened with eviction.

On Sunday, the Beijing Chaoyang district civil affairs bureau said that by organizing events without registering, the church was breaking rules forbidding mass gatherings and were now “legally banned” and its “illegal promotional material” had been confiscated, according to images of the notice sent to Reuters late on Sunday and confirmed by churchgoers.

“I fear that there is no way for us to resolve this issue with the authorities,” Zion’s Pastor Jin Mingri told Reuters.

China’s religious affairs and civil affairs bureaux did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.

Churches across China have faced new waves of harassment and pressure to register since a new set of regulations to govern religious affairs in China came into effect in February and heightened punishments for unofficial churches.

In July, more than 30 of Beijing’s hundreds of underground Protestant churches took the rare step of releasing a joint statement complaining of “unceasing interference” and the “assault and obstruction” of regular activities of believers since the new regulations came into effect.

China’s Christian believers are split between those who attend unofficial “house” or “underground” churches and those who attend government-sanctioned places of worship.

Churchgoers were also given a notice from the district religious affairs bureau saying that the “great masses of believer must respect the rules and regulations and attend events in legally registered places of religious activity”.

Zion’s attendees were also given pamphlets of officially sanctioned churches that they might attend instead.

But for many worshippers and pastors, such as Jin, accepting the oversight and ultimate authority of the Communist Party would be a betrayal of their faith.

“On this land, the only one we can trust in is God,” Jin said.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Michael Perry)

U.S. government creates health division for ‘religious freedom’

By Toni Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government is seeking to further protect the “conscience and religious freedom” of health workers whose beliefs prevent them from carrying out abortions and other procedures, in an effort likely to please conservative Christian activists and other supporters of President Donald Trump.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday it will create a division within its Office of Civil Rights to give it “the focus it needs to more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom.”

Healthcare workers, hospitals with religious affiliations, and medical students among others have been “bullied” by the federal government to provide these services despite existing laws on religious and conscience rights, the top HHS official said.

“The federal government has hounded religious hospitals…forcing them to provide services that violate their consciences,” Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan said. “Medical students too have learned to do procedures that violate their consciences.”

Politico reported on Wednesday that the department is aiming to give protections for workers who do not want to provide abortions, care for transgender patients seeking to transition, or perform other procedures because of moral or religious grounds.

The move is likely to upset reproductive rights advocates and some Democrats.

The division would enforce the legal protection and conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers with religious or moral objections to opt out.

The creation of the division is in accordance with an executive order signed by Trump last May called “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” The order was followed by new rules aimed at removing a legal mandate that health insurance provide contraception.

(Additional reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. places Pakistan on watch list for religious freedom violations

Trump to make final tax push as Republican negotiators near deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department has placed Pakistan on a special watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom,” it said on Thursday, days after the White House said Islamabad would have to do more to combat terrorism to receive U.S. aid.

The State Department also said it had re-designated 10 other nations as “countries of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for having engaged in or tolerated egregious violations of religious freedom.

The re-designated countries were China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They were re-designated on Dec. 22.

“The protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity,” the department said in a statement. “These designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized Pakistan for not doing more to combat terrorism, and his administration has informed members of Congress that it will announce plans to end “security assistance” payments to the country.

Pakistan has said it is already doing a lot to fight militants, and summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain a tweet by Trump that said the United States had been foolish in dispensing aid to Islamabad.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Susan Thomas)

Pivotal Justice Kennedy poses tough questions in gay wedding case

Pivotal Justice Kennedy poses tough questions in gay wedding case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared closely divided with likely pivotal vote Justice Anthony Kennedy posing tough questions about a Christian baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple but also questioning whether a Colorado civil rights commission that ruled on the issue was biased against religion.

The nine justices heard an intense, extended 80-minute oral argument in the major case on whether certain businesses can refuse service to gay couples if they oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

The case concerns an appeal by Jack Phillips, a baker who runs Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, of a state court ruling that his refusal to make a cake for gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012 on the basis of his religious beliefs violated a Colorado anti-discrimination law.

Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the court’s four liberals in major cases, raised concerns about issuing a ruling siding with the baker that would give a green light to discrimination against gay people.

The court’s four liberals would likely side with him on that point, with several justices citing a wide range of other creative professionals, including makeup artists and florists, who could deny service to gay customers if the baker wins.

In one of the biggest cases of the conservative-majority court’s nine-month term, the justices must decide whether the baker’s action was constitutionally protected.

Phillips, represented by the conservative Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, contends that the Colorado law violated his rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The Supreme Court arguments focused on his free speech claim, based on the idea that creating a custom cake is a form of free expression.

Mullins and Craig call the baker’s refusal a simple case of unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation. Colorado law bars businesses from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation.

Kennedy, a long-term champion of gay rights, mentioned the possibility of a baker putting a sign in his window saying he would not make cakes for gay weddings, wondering if that would be “an affront to the gay community.”

But citing comments made by a commissioner on the state civil rights panel that ruled against the baker, Kennedy said there was evidence of “hostility to religion” and questioned whether that panel’s decision should be allowed to stand.

“Tolerance is essential in a free society. Tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual,” Kennedy said. But the commission was not “tolerant or respectful” of Phillips, he added.

The commissioner, unnamed in court papers, said at a 2014 hearing that “freedom of religion, and religion, has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history.” The commissioner added that freedom of religion “is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use … to use their religion to hurt others.”

It was unclear to what extent Kennedy’s criticism of the commissioner would dictate how he votes in the case.

The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in a landmark 2015 ruling written by the 81-year-old Kennedy, one of the court’s five conservatives. He has joined the court’s four liberals in major decisions on issues such as abortion and gay rights, but also is a strong proponent of free speech rights. [L2N1LU1W9]

Mullins and Craig are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued that Phillips’ legal team is advocating for a “license to discriminate” that could have broad repercussions beyond gay rights.

Several of the justices asked questions that suggested they are concerned about how far a ruling in favor of the baker might extend. Liberal Justice Elena Kagan wondered about whether a hairstylist, chef or a makeup artist could refuse service, claiming their services are also speech protected by the Constitution. “Why is there no speech in creating a wonderful hairdo?” Kagan asked.

Kennedy asked U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the Trump administration lawyer supporting the baker, what would happen if the court rules for the baker and then bakers nationwide then started receiving requests to not bake cakes for gay weddings. “Would the government feel vindicated?” Kennedy asked.

Conservative members of the court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, appeared more sympathetic to the baker.

‘LOVE WINS’

Hundreds of demonstrators on both sides of the dispute rallied outside the white marble courthouse. Supporters of Phillips waved signs that read, “We got your back Jack.” As Mullins and Craig made their way into the courthouse, the two men led their supporters in chants of “Love Wins.”

After the arguments, Phillips told reporters that the backlash against his business after his refusal has included death threats and harassment, adding, “We are struggling just to make ends meet and keep the shop afloat.”

“It’s hard to believe that the government is forcing me choose between providing for my family and my employees, and violating my relationship with God,” Phillips said.

Mullins told reporters the couple’s snub by Phillips made them feel mortified and humiliated, like “second-class citizens in our society.”

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that Phillips had violated anti-discrimination law and ordered him to take remedial measures including staff training and the filing of quarterly compliance reports. The baker lost appeals in state courts before asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court’s cake case pits gay rights versus Christian faith

Supreme Court's cake case pits gay rights versus Christian faith

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When conservative Christian baker Jack Phillips in 2012 politely but firmly told Colorado gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig he would not make them a cake to celebrate their wedding, it triggered a chain of events that will climax on Tuesday in highly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court arguments.

Phillips contends the U.S. Constitution’s free speech guarantees protect him from making a cake that would violate his religious beliefs against gay marriage. To Mullins and Craig, the baker’s refusal represented a simple case of unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In one of the biggest cases of the conservative-majority court’s nine-month term, the justices — just two years after legalizing gay marriage — must decide whether Phillips’ action was constitutionally protected and he can avoid punishment for violating Colorado anti-discrimination law.

A ruling favoring Phillips could open the door for certain businesses to spurn gay couples by invoking religious beliefs, as some wedding photographers, florists and others already have done.

The brief encounter at Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood left Mullins and Craig distraught. They filed a successful complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the first step in the five-year-old legal battle that the nine justices will resolve in a ruling due by the end of June.

The baker’s lawyers argue that because his cakes are artistic endeavors, guarantees of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protect Phillips from being forced to make baked creations that express a message he opposes on religious grounds.

Mullins and Craig were planning their wedding in Massachusetts that September and wanted the cake for a reception to be held in Colorado, where gay marriage was not yet legal. Craig’s mother witnessed the tense exchange, which he said made it harder for him to bear.

“I ended up starting to cry because I felt really bad and overwhelmed that my mom had to see me go through this. I guess it was the feeling of helplessness,” Craig said in an interview.

Phillips said he offered to sell the couple other products in his store but was adamant that his religious beliefs compelled him to draw a line when it comes to certain issues.

‘I SERVE EVERYBODY’

“Everybody that comes in my store is welcome in my store,” Phillips said in an interview. “I serve everybody that comes in and I create products for many events, just not all events.”

Based on his Christian beliefs, Phillips said he also refuses to make Halloween cakes as well as baked goods “that denigrate other people.”

The civil rights commission found that Phillips violated state anti-discrimination law that bars businesses from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation. It ordered him to take remedial measures including staff training and the filing of quarterly compliance reports.

Phillips said he found the penalty “deeply offensive” in part because until recently his mother was one of his employees.

“I have to tell my mom, ‘Everything you have taught me doesn’t count here,'” Phillips said.

In 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals also ruled against Phillips. The Colorado Supreme Court subsequently denied his appeal, prompting Phillips to take the case to the top U.S. court.

Evangelical Christians are an important part of President Donald Trump’s political base, and his administration filed a brief in support of Phillips.

The case puts 81-year-old Justice Anthony Kennedy, one of the court’s five conservative, in the spotlight. Kennedy, a potential deciding vote in a 5-4 ruling, has joined the court’s liberals in major decisions on issues such as abortion and gay rights. He authored the court’s landmark 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But Kennedy is also a strong proponent of free speech rights.

CULTURAL FLASHPOINT

The case has become a cultural flashpoint in the United States that underscores the tensions between gay rights proponents and conservative Christians.

National advocacy groups have jumped in on both sides. Mullins and Craig are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. Phillips is represented by the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

Similar cases are being litigated in other U.S. courts, and other countries also are confronting the issue. In April, Britain’s Supreme Court will consider whether a Christian-run bakery in Northern Ireland can refuse to make a cake backing gay rights.

In this case and others involving such issues as abortion, union dues and campaign funding, conservatives have relied on free speech arguments before the Supreme Court, but the issue of religious liberty still looms large.

“This is about will the U.S. Supreme Court decide that the fundamental freedoms and liberties that Americans have taken for granted for 200 years are still valid,” said Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner.

The ACLU said a ruling favoring Phillips could lead to other efforts to skirt anti-discrimination laws.

“They are asking for a constitutional right to discriminate,” ACLU lawyer Louise Melling said. “This is not a case about a cake. It is a case about a very radical proposition.”

Mullins and Craig did get to celebrate their marriage with a cake made by another bakery. Phillips will once again encounter them on Tuesday, this time in the grand marble halls of the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)