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When the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, those of us praying in the Benedictine College Memorare Army for Religious Freedom probably celebrated.
And, as the U.S. bishops point out, the outcome of the case was truly good news — mostly.
The case pitted an Evangelical Christian, Jack Phillips, owner and proprietor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, against the state of Colorado over a same-sex couple who was married there in 2012.
The baker declined to make one of his “masterpieces” for the couple. That sounded totally reasonable to one side of the debate — after all, you wouldn’t expect Muslim bakers to have to make a cake depicting Mohamed. In America, the free exercise of religion means no one can make you violate your conscience.
But Phillips’ decision sounded unfair to others, who considered his refusal to cooperate in a same-sex marriage a bigoted act of hatred. Did the Supreme Court suddenly allow bigotry and hatred?
Three quick takeaways from the ruling.
1: The case was not about discrimination against homosexuals; it was about discrimination against Christians.
Leading Catholic intellectual and Princeton professor Robert George made an excellent point in The New York Times.
The case began not when Jack Phillips refused to bake a cake, but when the Colorado Civil Rights Commission fined him for his decision. They said he had violated the state’s anti-discrimination statute.
“Mr. Phillips insisted that he had done no such thing,” writes George. “He had made clear to the two men who requested the cake that he would happily sell them goods off-the-shelf and that he would design cakes for them for special occasions (birthdays, job promotions, etc.) that did not violate his sincerely held Christian beliefs. But the commission ruled against the baker, and its decision was upheld by the Colorado courts.”
It would be wrong to deny someone service based on aspects of their life you find undesirable. That isn’t what happened. Phillips didn’t object to this couple, he objected to same-sex marriage — an objection he shares with every major religion worldwide, and more than more than 50 million American voters.
Key chairman of the U.S. conference of bishops celebrated the decision because it is a blow to discrimination— against Christians. They said the decision “confirms that people of faith should not suffer discrimination on account of their deeply held religious beliefs, but instead should be respected by government officials.”
2: But, by the same token, the court didn’t embolden Christian bakers, so much as it warned government enforcers.
Catholic Vote in its summary of the case saw much to celebrate — but also pointed out that declaring the case a total victory for religious liberty would be premature.
“The Supreme Court limited itself to ruling on the conduct of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission,” wrote Brian Burch, Catholic Vote’s president. “The Supreme Court did not recognize a robust First Amendment right to religious liberty for bakers like Jack Phillips. They simply said that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission went too far.”
Nonetheless, added Connecticut Institute of the Family’s Peter Wolfgang, “it’s a ‘narrow ruling’ but there is some very good language in it. The government doesn’t get to decide what’s offensive, to elevate one view of what’s offensive over another. Colorado showed ‘a clear and impermissible hostility’ toward Phillips’ religious beliefs and we now know that the government can’t do that. Until today, who really knew?”
Ever since same sex marriage passed, so much has been up in the air. Which brings us to a third observation …
3: This case should make us remember, and repeat, Justice Kennedy’s words from 2015.
When the Supreme Court redefined marriage in 2015, I wrote that “We must never let the words of the court be forgotten in the debates that will follow.”
This is one of those moments. Recall that in his majority decision in the Obergefell v. Hodgescase, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared:
“Religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”
He added: “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
But we must also remember Chief Justice Roberts’s response to Kennedy in his dissent to the opinion: “The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion.”