A Limited Victory for Religious Freedom

The Supreme Court ruled today, by a wide majority of 7 to 2, in one of its most anticipated cases of the session, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The result was a victory for the particular religious liberty claim raised by the owner of the shop, Jack Philips. But this victory was limited by the Court’s very fact-specific ruling, and it’s explicit statement that there is no guarantee that future cases will be handled the same way.

The facts are fairly simple. In 2012, prior to the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in Colorado and the United States in general, two men approached Mr. Phillips and asked him to create a cake for their upcoming “wedding”. Mr. Phillips declined, saying that he did not create cakes for same-sex weddings, even though he would serve same-sex couples for other occasions. It’s important to note that Mr. Phillips views his business not just a profit-making venture. Rather, he says that his “main goal in life is to be obedient to” Jesus Christ and Christ’s “teachings in all aspects of his life” and he seeks to “honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop.” So his refusal to participate and celebrate the same-sex “wedding” was an expression of his deeply-held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

A complaint was brought against Mr. Phillips, claiming that he was violating the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act by refusing service on the basis of sexual orientation. The case went before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for decision. The Commission ruled against Mr. Phillips, as did the Colorado Court of Appeals. That’s what brought the case to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court paid very close attention to what happened before the Commission. The Court noted,

As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. No commissioners objected to the comments. Nor were they mentioned in the later state-court ruling or disavowed in the briefs filed here. The comments thus cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case.

In fact, the Commission had also heard three other cases recently that were relevant to Mr. Phillips’ case. In each of those cases, the Commission had ruled that bakers could refuse to create cakes with religious statements against homosexuality and same-sex “marriage” because the bakers found those statements “offensive”. The Court found this disparate treatment to be explicable only by the Commission’s hostility to Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs. The Court concluded,

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. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decision maker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided.

If there is anything that the First Amendment religion clauses stand for, it’s that government cannot favor certain viewpoints or punish others because the government officials have particular preferences. The Constitution demands that everyone be treated even-handedly, even if certain powerful people find the religious views involved to be “offensive”. The Court found that the Commission had not treated Mr. Phillips fairly because it disapproved of his religious views.

It is also important that, as the Court noted, “the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.” This directly rejected the Colorado courts’ finding that his creation of wedding cakes did not qualify as “speech” because it was “not sufficiently expressive”. In a strong concurrence, Justice Thomas explained this error in detail.

While it is certainly a significant legal victory for Mr. Phillips (and for Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented him), the significance of this case is muted by the Court’s fact-based analysis and their specific caveat that future cases may come out differently. It is unfortunate that the Court did not explicitly adopt Justice Thomas’ broader view of religiously-motivated expressive conduct as a form of protected free speech. And it is also regrettable that the Court did not repudiate the position, taken by some state courts, that whenever there is a conflict between religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws, religion will always lose.

This decision does not mean, as some critics will undoubtedly argue, that religious people have a “license to discriminate”. But it does affirm that religious people are entitled to a fair hearing by a neutral decision-maker, and that overt hostility to religious belief is still forbidden. And that is clearly a victory for religious freedom.

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