by Bridget Starrs
Today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage ceremony in 2012. The Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was 7-2, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing the majority opinion. The six-year long case pitted religious liberty against anti-discrimination claims, but the Court ultimately sided with Phillips.
In 2012, Phillips turned down a request to bake a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins on the grounds that doing so would imply support for same-sex marriage and therefore violate his Christian beliefs. Mullins and Craig proceeded to file a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, arguing that Phillips’ refusal violated a Colorado civil rights law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public spaces. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court last year, bringing fundamental constitutional questions to the forefront of political debate.
“Today’s emphatic 7-2 ruling is a tremendous victory for Jack Phillips and all Americans who desire to follow their faith and conscience. It also serves as a condemnation of the institutional anti-Christian bigotry that has grown rampant over the past decade,” executive director at American Principles Project Terry Schilling said.
The majority opinion states that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to treat Phillips’ beliefs with tolerance or respect during its adjudication of the case, thereby violating the state’s obligation under the Free Exercise Clause to not base rulings on hostility towards religious faith. Justice Kennedy cites quotes to illustrate the intolerant nature of the proceedings. Referencing a commissioner’s comment, Kennedy wrote that “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.”
“For these reasons, the Court cannot avoid the conclusion that these statements cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case,” Kennedy 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.”
While many conservatives are celebrating the Court’s ruling as a victory for religious freedom, others argue the Court’s decision does not ensure similar outcomes for future cases. The American Civil Liberties Union, the organization representing Craig and Mullins, remarked that since the ruling was based on the specifics of Phillips’ case, it doesn’t create a precedent for future rulings.
“The court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision based on concerns unique to the case but reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people,” ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling said.
A CNN Supreme Court analyst echoed the idea that today’s decision does not settle fundamental disagreements presented by Phillips’ case.
“Today’s decision is remarkably narrow, and leaves for another day virtually all of the major constitutional questions that this case presented. It’s hard to see the decision setting a precedent,” CNN Supreme Court analyst and University of Texas Law professor Steve Vladeck said.
Nonetheless, a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Phillips is a victory for proponents of religious freedom that viewed the case against Phillips as an attack on free expression of religion and speech.
“Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society, yet the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage. The court was right to condemn that. Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a society like ours,” said Kristen Waggoner, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, the firm defending Phillips.
“Progressives have sought to suppress any views that differ from an activist LGBT agenda, while steamrolling fundamental human rights like the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of association,” APP’s Schilling further added. “Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a significant first step in pushing back on that progressive effort and preserving an America [where] all can live out their faith in the public square without fear of government persecution.”