The most anticipated Supreme Court decision of the year was released on Monday. The case of Masterpiece Cakeshop involved Jack Phillips, a faithful Christian, who was charged with violating Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act for politely declining to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The Court’s answer to the legal question at the heart of the case—whether Colorado could force a business owner to make a product and support a message that he disagreed with based upon his religious beliefs—might have been the most significant opinion in a generation. Instead, in a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court punted on that fundamental question and decided the case on other grounds: that the specific cake baker in question did not get a fair hearing.
While this result isn’t the sweeping affirmation of a business owner’s right to religious freedom we hoped for, it is still very good news. Jack won the case and the Court opined that the government was wrong to punish him for living consistent with his sincerely held religious beliefs.
There are several positive things to take away from the decision, and a few hints about challenges that remain.
The Court held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission unconstitutionally violated Jack’s constitutional right to freely exercise his beliefs because the Commission showed clear hostility to Jack’s religious beliefs and applied state law unfairly. The Court noted that the Commission showed their hostility against religion in their abusive and dismissive language when discussing Jack’s beliefs and by applying Colorado anti-discrimination law differently in different cases based upon whether its own subjective opinion about whether the claim in question was valid.
First, in his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy rebuked the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that adjudicated Jack’s case for comparing his religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust, calling such rhetoric “clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection.” Sadly, this sort of rhetoric is regularly used to characterize advocates of religious freedom. For example, during our fight for the Adoption Protection Act, several members of the Kansas legislature described us in the same manner. We reject these repulsive comparisons and we are extremely pleased that the Supreme Court has our back. In Jack’s case, the Court ruled that “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”
Second, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of business owners to bring their religion with them to work. Justice Kennedy included the Commission’s view “that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain” among the elements of a “clear and impermissible hostility” towards Jack’s faith.
Third, Justice Kennedy reminded us that the government doesn’t get to protect only the conscience rights it agrees with. His opinion criticizes the different treatment Jack received before the Commission compared to treatment of other bakers who declined to create cakes with messages to which they objected, including those with anti-gay marriage messages. In a concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch exposed this inconsistency, stating, “the Commission allowed three other bakers to refuse a customer’s request that would have required them to violate their secular commitments. Yet it denied the same accommodation to Mr. Phillips [Jack] when he refused a customer’s request that would have required him to violate his religious beliefs.”
Kansas has taken many steps to preserve the fundamental right to religious freedom and conscience, like RFRA, the Campus Religious Freedom Act, and the Adoption Protection Act. Preserving these statutes against the constant pressure to rescind them is paramount.
We must also take seriously the threat to our freedoms posed by so-called “anti-discrimination” ordinances and unelected, bureaucratic entities like Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission. Recently, Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, added sexual orientation and gender identity to their “nondiscrimination” ordinances, a severe threat to the basic human rights of Kansas citizens.
Rest assured, Family Policy Alliance of Kansas will not grow weary in our defense of your right to live and work in line with your faith. We are currently gearing up for the 2018 elections and supporting candidates who will join us in that fight at the legislature. Will you equip us to get them elected by making a donation to Family Policy Alliance of Kansas today?
President & Executive Director