The Supreme Court of the United States rendered its opinion on a highly anticipated case regarding the right of a baker to refuse to design and create a wedding cake for a gay marriage ceremony based upon his religious convictions. However, for SCOTUS, this appears not to be a case of religious freedom, but one of unjust government discrimination.
Jack Phillips, a practicing Christian, often refused to design and create baked goods based upon his religious beliefs. His store was closed on Sundays and other Christian holidays, he refused to create or design desserts for Halloween, and he refused to make desserts that contained alcohol.
Phillips did not refuse to serve the same-sex couple who later filed a complaint. He only refused to design and create a cake for their wedding. He remarked that he would be happy to design and create cookies, birthday cakes, shower cakes or brownies, but not a wedding cake due to religious objections.
The same-sex couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the commission, after several hearings, decided that Phillips had violated Colorado’s public accommodation laws by refusing to create and design this wedding cake for the same-sex couple. The commission did not accept Phillip’s defense of religious conviction. In fact, members of the commission, on record and as justification for their decision, mocked Phillip’s beliefs and compared his religious convictions to slavery and the Holocaust.
The Supreme Court found in favor of Phillips in a 7-2 opinion, based particularly on the statements of the Colorado commissioners.
There are some very significant points that must be made to clarify this carefully written opinion. Because of the great public anticipation over this case, there will be a tendency to make more of what was said than was actually said and mischaracterize the magnitude of this decision.
1. Not a Matter of Religious Freedom
The court did not render its opinion on the basis of religious freedom. They did not declare that private business owners are free to discriminate based upon religious beliefs. As a matter of fact, they said the opposite:
“It is the general rule that (religious and philosophical) objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and public services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”
“Colorado law can protect gay persons, just as it can protect other classes of individuals, in acquiring whatever products and services they choose on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public.”
Phillips made multiple statements asserting his refusal to make the cake was based upon his religious convictions. However, it seems the court only references these objections for the purpose of condemning the Colorado commissioners’ apparent discriminatory statements voiced against Phillips. This court never asserted that Phillips was justified in his refusal based upon his right to religious freedom.
It is therefore not clear that this is an overall victory for private business owners or Christians to publicly maintain their convictions.
2. Clergy Cannot be Compelled
The court took time to clarify that it should be “assumed” that “when it comes to weddings … a member of the clergy who objects to gay marriage on moral and religious grounds could not be compelled to perform that ceremony without denial of his or her right to the free exercise of religion.”
It is interesting that the court feels it should be obvious and therefore not questioned that professional clergy maintain full rights to expression of their religious freedom but a baker does not. It would seem that the court sees the possession and expression of fundamental rights like freedom of religion as inherent in a profession rather inherent to all persons.
3. It’s Not Religious Freedom; It’s Freedom from Discrimination
This court did not declare that Phillips’ personal objections justified his refusal to bake this cake. Instead, it took a safer and more politically correct approach by finding that the Colorado commissioners’ statements applied the Colorado public accommodation law in a discriminating and biased manner.
The court said, “the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws.” However, the government cannot use Phillips’ religious beliefs as the basis for the application of their laws.
Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that when commissioners on the Colorado board made statements describing Phillips’ faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” and equating his refusal to design and create a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage to the acts of slavery and the Holocaust, they began down the path of discriminating against him.
In addition to these condemning statements, the Colorado commission had, at the same time, determined that three other bakers could refuse to bake cakes critical of gay marriage, contrary to their secular convictions, making clear their bias and discriminatory application of this otherwise “neutral” law.
The majority opinion determined that it was this discriminatory act by the Colorado commission that required the court to overturn this case. Again, for the majority opinion, this appears not to be a case of religious freedom of expression, but one of unjust government discrimination.
4. Not Legal Yet
The court, almost in passing, also mentioned that Phillips’ may have been justified in his refusal to design and create this wedding cake because Colorado had not legalized gay marriage yet. His refusal, at that time, was not only in compliance with state law, but also a refusal to participate in an illegal activity.
Kennedy added this point of fact as a way of publicly warning business owners in states that have legalized gay marriage that they have no religious freedom argument to withhold services if state law otherwise compels them.
5. What About Freedom of Speech?
There is one aspect of personal rights the majority opinion mentions but strangely never fleshes out: the matter of freedom of speech.
The majority court introduces the question: Is the government’s law forcing Phillips to design and create a cake contrary to his personal message a violation of freedom of speech? But then, in what seems to be a lapse of concentration, the majority opinion never answers this question definitively.
It isn’t until we get to Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurrence that we find a truly worthy discussion of this important element. Thomas’ opinion on the matter of freedom of speech is so thorough and so supported by precedent it makes one wonder why the majority court refused to give this topic its due consideration.
Thomas points out that it is well within the history of the Supreme Court to support the expression of offensive beliefs in the name of freedom of speech. After all, he reminds us, if the burning of a flag or a 25 foot cross (Virginia v. Black), or designing and creating “a film featuring Klan members brandishing weapons and threatening to ‘Bury the niggers,’” (Brandenburg v. Ohio) are all protected speech, then surely designing and creating a cake ought to fit these categories as well.
By the terms laid out by Thomas, this case should have absolutely been decided in favor of Phillips on the merits of freedom of speech. Why the majority court would introduce this element but then fail to complete its thought on the matter is puzzling. Why the majority court would choose a single justification for their opinion when they could have had two compelling arguments is equally puzzling.
6. The Dissent
One final matter worth discussing is the dissent written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Not surprisingly, Ginsburg feels that this case should have been decided in favor of the same-sex couple. However, her argument against the majority opinion is so weak it makes clear her bias.
She does not address the fact that gay marriage was illegal at the time Phillips refused to design and created the cake. She does not even broach the freedom of speech aspect. Instead she asserts that the biased statements of a few commissioners against Phillips, during a government hearing in judgment of Phillips, do not rise to the level of “hostility” toward Phillips and therefore cannot be the justification for overturning this case.
Apparently, Ginsburg believes in a lower standard of discrimination for government than private citizens by claiming that these clear and impermissible words of hostility placed on the record by members of the commission and used as justification for their decision were not an exercise of content discrimination, yet the baker refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay marriage that was then against the law and violated his religious beliefs was discrimination.
KrisAnne Hall is a national speaker and consultant on the Constitution, founder of Liberty First University, former Russian linguist for the U.S. Army, and former prosecutor for the State of Florida. She also practiced First Amendment law for a prominent national non-profit law firm. KrisAnne now travels the country teaching the foundational principles of liberty and our constitutional republic. KrisAnne Hall is the author of six books on the Constitution and Bill of Rights and has an internationally popular radio presence. Her books and classes have been featured on C-SPAN TV. KrisAnne Hall can be found at www.KrisAnneHall.com.
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