The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of the Colorado baker who refused to customize a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony, exciting defenders of religious liberty but leaving some of the broader issues of free speech and religious expression unresolved.
The 7-2 decision reversed a decision by the Colorado Court of Appeals and resolved a six-year legal dispute between Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips and the same-sex couple who allege Phillips discriminated against them.
“This is a significant win for religious freedom and it’s a great decision from the court that affirms the basic freedom for everybody to live and work according to their religious beliefs, without fear of unjust punishment from the government. That’s a great thing for Jack and that’s a great thing for everybody today,” said Kate Anderson, legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Masterpiece Cakeshop in this case.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the majority opinion legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015, also wrote the ruling this case.
“I was in the courtroom when this decision was handed down and when Anthony Kennedy was the one reading the decision, it really made me nervous,” said Liberty Counsel Chairman Mathew Staver, a fierce critic of Kennedy on many cases related to marriage over the years
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“You couldn’t tell which way he was going at the very beginning, but as his discussion of the case moved forward it was clear the court ultimately sided with Jack Phillips,” added Staver. “To get seven justices to agree on this particular issue, whether it’s narrow or broad, is a spectacular event, and it’s a good day.”
The legal battle began in 2012, when Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins entered the shop, looking to order a cake for their same-sex ceremony.
“He offered to sell them anything in his shop. He just explained that he cannot create custom wedding cake designs that send a message that violates his conscience, in this case a cake that is custom in nature and sends a message celebrating a vision of marriage that violates his conscience,” said Anderson.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission came down very hard on Phillips.
“The commission ruled against him and showed a great deal of hostility in that ruling. They ordered him to create cakes for same-sex weddings despite his religious beliefs if he created any wedding cakes, so he has had to stop creating wedding cakes. It’s been about a 40 percent hit on his business.
“The commission also ordered him to re-educate all of his staff in accord with the commission’s views on marriage. Mostly it’s his family that works for him, so he was ordered, essentially, to re-educate his family on these issues,” said Anderson.
It was that “hostility” that drove Monday’s court ruling.
“[I]t must be concluded that the State’s interest could have been weighed against Phillips’ sincere religious objections in away consistent with the requisite religious neutrality that must be strictly observed. The official expressions of hostility to religion in some of the commissioners’ comments—comments that were not disavowed at the Commission or by the State at any point in the proceedings that led to affirmance of the order—were inconsistent with what the Free Exercise Clause requires,” wrote Kennedy
“The Commission’s disparate consideration of Phillips’ case compared to the cases of the other bakers suggests the same. For these reasons, the order must be set aside,” he added.
Anderson says the ruling is great vindication for Phillips.
“Now he can live according to his religious beliefs, which is a great thing for everyone. The court was clear that the government cannot be hostile to religious beliefs and that the government, in applying the laws, must be fair and respectful of people’s religious beliefs,” said Phillips.
But the decision is being characterized many as narrow, not due to the margin in the court’s vote but to the impact of the ruling.
“The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market,” wrote Kennedy at the end of his opinion.
Staver says that means the battle goes on.
“One thing for sure is that it didn’t settle once and for all this issue of the clash between the first amendment and the LGBT agenda. That will be saved for another day,” said Staver.
Anderson agrees in principle but says the condemnation of hostility could apply to other cases, such as Washington state florist Baronelle Stutzman, who is also on the legal ropes after refusing to service a same-sex wedding for clients she served for other purchases for years.
Anderson contends Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson demonstrated very similar hostility to Stutzman, moving forward with a case before he even had a client.
Staver says the court could add additional heft to Monday’s decision when it rules on another hot-button issue later this month.
“I think what we’re going to see between now and the end of June is a case out of California, involving crisis pregnancy centers and forced speech. The state is forcing them to give a pro-abortion message. I believe the court is going to come down on the side of the crisis pregnancy centers against the forced speech,” said Staver.
While the broader issues have yet to be resolved, Anderson says all Americans should celebrate what happened on Monday.
“Civil liberties run together so when one person’s rights to live according to their beliefs are violated, everybody’s beliefs are at risk.
“I hope that everyone can see that, that this strong decision that government needs to respect people’s ability to live and work according to their beliefs is something that goes both ways. It means that everybody’s protected in their particular beliefs,” said Anderson.