The U.S. Supreme Court handed religious liberty advocates a major victory Monday when it sided with a Christian baker who refused to design a wedding cake celebrating a same-sex marriage.
In a 7-2 ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission demonstrated hostility toward religion and violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty when it ordered the baker, Jack Phillips, to design wedding cakes for same-sex couples. Phillips owns a Colorado bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop.
“The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection,” Kennedy wrote. “… The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.”
Religious liberty groups applauded the ruling.
“Jack serves all customers; he simply declines to express messages or celebrate events that violate his deeply held beliefs,” said Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Kristen Waggoner, who defended Phillips before the Supreme Court. “Creative professionals who serve all people should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment.”
Waggoner added, “Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a society like ours. This decision makes clear that the government must respect Jack’s beliefs about marriage.”
In a conference call with media members, Waggoner disagreed with other legal experts who were calling the ruling “narrow.”
“This case will affect a number of cases for years to come,” she said.
The case began when two gay men, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, entered Phillips’ shop and asked him to design a cake for their wedding reception. But he refused based on his religious beliefs. As stated in the court’s finding of facts, Phillips’ “main goal in life is to be obedient to” Jesus Christ and Christ’s “teachings in all aspects of his life.” He also believes that “to create a wedding cake for an event that celebrates something that directly goes against the teachings of the Bible, would have been a personal endorsement and participation in the ceremony.”
Craig and Mullins then filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which sided with the couple and referred the matter to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The members of the commission also sided with the couple and – during a public hearing – criticized Phillips.
Kennedy referenced the comments of one commissioner who said during the public hearing, “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be -- I mean, we -- we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to -- to use their religion to hurt others.”
Kennedy said the comments crossed a legal line.
“To describe a man’s faith as ‘one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use’ is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical -- something insubstantial and even insincere,” Kennedy wrote. “The commissioner even went so far as to compare Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s antidiscrimination law -- a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”
The commission’s hostility toward religion was further evident when it sided with bakers who refused to bake cakes opposing gay marriage, Kennedy wrote.
Liberty Counsel, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Phillips, praised the ruling.
“This is a huge victory for the religious rights of private citizens,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “People should not be forced to speak a message that violates their conscience. Just as any person or business should have the right to refuse to promote a KKK event, in the same way no one should be forced to promote a same-sex ceremony that violates their sincerely held religious beliefs. A painter can refuse to paint hate, nudity or the Nazi symbol. A photographer or moviemaker can refuse to film offensive content. A person should be free to refuse to be used as a mouthpiece for an objectionable message. Today's ruling protects that inalienable right to conscience.”
The case, Kennedy said, involved competing rights protected under the U.S. Constitution.
“Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” Kennedy wrote. “For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”
Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Michael Foust is a freelance writer. Visit his blog, MichaelFoust.com.
Photo courtesy: Facebook/We Stand With Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop Colorado Bakery
Publication date: June 4, 2018