SALT LAKE CITY — Eboo Patel has a mental game he likes to play when a news segment or bad interaction has skewed his impression of a group of people.

He'll think, "Do I know someone who belongs to that group?," and try to replace the new, negative feelings with the image of a friend.

"When I think about that category, whatever it is, I want to think about my friend, not the image I saw on the evening news," said Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that helps college campuses improve their approach to religious diversity.

Then he'll seek out more information on the group, learning if someone who identifies with that religious tradition or political faction designed a famous building or cured a common illness.

"I want to see what contributions members of that group made to people in America," Patel said.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy likely didn't have this approach in mind when he wrote the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, ruling the commission was wrongly biased against Jack Phillips, a baker who refused to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex celebration. However, Patel's practice fits well with Kennedy's recommendations.

Kennedy urged judges, lawmakers and everyday Americans to be more tolerant of their neighbors, expressing support for both members of the LGBT community and religious believers who object to same-sex marriage.

"These disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs and without subjecting gay persons to indignities," he wrote.

That's easier said than done, according to experts on religion-related conflict. While tragedy can trigger understanding, such as the outpouring of help in response to the 2017 fatal fire at a high-rise apartment tower in West London, tolerance usually doesn't increase spontaneously. It takes regularly choosing understanding over anger, which is rare at a time when rage is becoming our go-to response, said John Corvino, a professor of philosophy and dean of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

"Our soundbite culture prompts us to respond quickly in anger, instead of stepping back, taking a breath and seeking to understand. My hope is that the Masterpiece decision encourages more of such seeking," he said.

Unequal tolerance

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case is the latest in a series of lawsuits and legislative actions that bring protections for the LGBT community and protections for the religious community into conflict. The clash was predicted in the aftermath of same-sex marriage legalization, but the way competing interests have been handled has increased ill will on both sides, experts said.

As a result, some Americans find it nearly impossible to respect LGBT rights and religious rights at the same time, said Patel, citing his interactions with college and university leaders.

Eboo Patel visits about 25 college and university campuses each year to speak with college students about interfaith activism and religious diversity.
Eboo Patel visits about 25 college and university campuses each year to speak with college students about interfaith activism and religious diversity. | Provided by Interfaith Youth Core

"From some perspectives, a commitment to one means that you have to be opposed to the other," he said.

Patel's job takes him to about 25 college campuses each school year, where he's observed a related and troubling trend. As school leaders place more emphasis on LGBT equality, they're often failing to provide the tools students need to understand and respect religious diversity.

"It's impossible to generalize even about four-year, residential campuses. But having said that, I would note that in many, many places, diversity work views race, gender and sexuality as the most important identities and, very often, has a relatively small space for religion (in the curriculum or program) or even views it as part of the problem," he said.

Anecdotes like these help explain why conservative Christians increasingly feel targeted by their non-Christian neighbors. Nearly 6 in 10 white evangelical Protestants say Christians face a lot of discrimination in America today, compared to 33 percent of all Americans, according to a 2017 survey from Public Religion Research Institute.

In the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, Kennedy wrote that religious beliefs deserve respect, even when they're unpopular. He criticized a Colorado commissioner for comparing using religious beliefs to justify a service refusal to using religious beliefs to justify the Holocaust or slavery.

"This sentiment is inappropriate for a commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado's anti-discrimination law — a law that protects against discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation," he wrote.

Moving forward, Americans from different religious backgrounds and with opposing views on same-sex marriage have to better listen to one another's concerns, said Corvino, co-author of "Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination."

The Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling "signaled that we'll do a much better job of addressing those questions (on LGBT and religious rights) if we're not too quick to label our opponents as 'despicable,'" he said.

Confronting bias

Corvino, a gay man, has adopted this approach in his own life, seeking out friendships with people who object to same-sex marriage for religious reasons.

"A big part (of my motivation) is personal temperament. I like getting along with people," he said.

His goal isn't to change minds, although he doesn't shy away from sharing his support for same-sex marriage. Instead, he's focused on getting to know people from different backgrounds and turning a would-be enemy into a friend.

"We share this world, and we face some common challenges. We do a better job of addressing those challenges if we can come together in friendship," Corvino said, noting that friendships are "a check against the extreme tendency toward polarization."

Humans can't avoid having biases, psychologists note. We're wired to be suspicious of people who are different than us because of our ancestors' experiences battling with competing tribes, as Gleb Tsipursky, a historian at Ohio State University, recently wrote for Psychology Today.

However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't confront our prejudicial instincts. Research has shown when you meet someone who contradicts your assumptions, your bias weakens, as Mahzarin Banaji, one of the creators of the Implicit Association Test, told

For example, 67 percent of U.S. adults who had a conversation with a Muslim at least occasionally in the past 12 months agreed that Muslims are an important part of the American religious community. Among adults who had no conversations with Muslims, only 45 percent said the same, according to a 2015 survey from Public Religion Research Institute.

Jordan Denari Duffner, author of "Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic," has watched this research play out in real life, as she's worked to improve relationships between the Catholic and Muslim communities.

"When people have an actual, personal relationship where they've talked about deep things, surely that helps," she said.

However, friendships aren't a perfect antidote to intolerance, she added. When we recognize a bias in ourselves, we need to take additional steps to confront it, such as following members of the disliked group on social media or reading more about their views.

Unless we make an effort to learn more about one another, we'll walk around assuming the worst about our neighbors, Patel said.

Eboo Patel visits about 25 college and university campuses each year to speak with college students about interfaith activism and religious diversity.
Eboo Patel visits about 25 college and university campuses each year to speak with college students about interfaith activism and religious diversity. | Provided by Interfaith Youth Core

He recounted sitting in a university student center about a decade ago, listening as a group of young men discussed a news report on a Muslim terrorist playing on a nearby TV.

"A Muslim girl in a hijab walked by. One of the guys looked at her, looked at the TV and then said, 'Maybe they're related,'" Patel said. "That guy knew nothing about Islam except what he saw on the evening news."

Ongoing debates on LGBT and religious rights won't be solved if people don't go out into the world and try to better understand who they're fighting with, experts said.

"It's really important when having these challenging conversations about religion in our current moment to really try to understand where the other person is coming from," Duffner said.