Into the looking glass: Why the impact of Masterpiece Cakeshop at the Supreme Court matters

December 5, 2017

Today, oral arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd., v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission are set to be heard before the Supreme Court, and things as seemingly unimportant as milk, flour, and sugar may be the ingredients that determine the shape of religious liberty’s future in America.

Jack Phillips is a culinary artist and cake shop owner in Colorado accused of discriminating against a same-sex couple for refusing to create a custom wedding cake for them. As a Christian, Phillips believes that marriage is exclusively between a man and woman. Phillips refrained from creating the custom cake for the same-sex couple on the grounds that same-sex marriage conflicts with his understanding of marriage. In Phillips’ view, the manner in which he creates customized wedding cakes enlists his speech to create a message for an event he disagrees with. due to the very nature of what a wedding cake is designed to communicate—celebration and affirmation of the marriage.

In keeping with his Christian convictions, Phillips also refuses to create any custom cake that communicates a message he objects to on religious grounds—such as Halloween cakes or other messages he deems lewd and not in keeping with his Christian faith. Phillips has no issue serving same-sex persons and has happily done so throughout his career. A custom birthday cake for a gay individual, for example, is of no concern for Phillips because all individuals, regardless of how they sexually identify, celebrate birthdays. He merely objects to using his creative talents under the threat of compulsion for a message or event he disagrees with, as in the case of a same-sex wedding where the purpose of a cake is to celebrate and affirm the marriage.

Thus, this case has significant bearing on the relationship between one’s religious convictions and the freedom to not engage in activity or speech that conflicts with those convictions. At root, Phillips is being asked to choose between the integrity of his conscience and conducting his business. Given the First Amendment’s broad protections for religious liberty and the freedom to not engage in speech or activity one disagrees with without a compelling government interest saying otherwise, this is not a choice he should have to make.

In the other corner are David Mullins and Charlie Craig, a same-sex couple who believe Phillips’ refusal to provide a custom cake for their wedding celebration constitutes an invidious form of discrimination and “dignitary harm.” When the details and nuances of the case are sorted out, it is apparent that no such discrimination occurred.

Because court rulings are a barometer for American culture and a looking glass into the future, it is hard to stress the significance of the future impact this case will have on how courts and eventually, the law, will treat religious liberty claims when an accusation of sexual orientation discrimination arises.

Underneath the future ruling will be tectonic implications for American society. Here are a few reasons Christians should be concerned about the outcome of the case and pray for a ruling in favor of Jack Phillips. It should be noted that many of the outcomes described below depend on how sweeping the ruling is from the Supreme Court.

A loss signals that the Sexual Revolution now conscripts conscientious objectors to its cause. In the event of a loss, the Supreme Court would signal that it is no longer acceptable to simply remain silent or sit on the sidelines when it comes to the onward march of the Sexual Revolution. Rather, active assent to the orthodoxy of the Sexual Revolution will be the standard for someone starting a business. Gone are the days of allowing silence and disagreement, and here to stay is a regime of requested affirmation of identities at odds with Scripture.

A loss signals that free speech is predicated on the emotional responses to someone registering disagreement. The rise of “dignitary harm” arguments aims to achieve desired legal outcomes on the basis of a perceived slight or personal offense. While Christians should reject all forms of insult, ridicule, or mockery, a legal regime that treats hurt feelings as tantamount to discrimination is on a precarious ledge. Emotions are volatile and unstable grounds to determine speech and free exercise claims. A condition of living in a free society is that one opens himself or herself up to the possibility of encountering opinions or viewpoints that are offensive. Emotions should not, however, be the determining factor in choosing what views should be permitted freedom. In fact, we should hope that emotions rarely enter into legal calculus, since emotional responses can issue from badly formed personal habits and identities, and irrational grasps that are in need of confrontation. Society needs free speech, even speech it deems unwelcome, in order to safeguard society from error were it to become comfortable with injustice or immorality. In the event of a loss, such a regime rejects broad constructions of free speech in favor of constrained speech permitted on the grounds that it agrees with prevailing social manners.

Compelled speech is acceptable as long as it serves a politically correct cause. Related, in the event of a loss at the Supreme Court, the court would tip its hand in the direction of favoring compulsion and coercion if it furthers a desirable social outcome. Again, Christians should always fight for what is true, good, and beautiful, but if and when a legal regime adopts an expectation that speech conform to a predetermined cultural judgment, free speech and religious liberty become subjugated to majority opinions about what is true, good, and beautiful. In effect, the government establishes an orthodoxy. In better form, the Supreme Court should return to the language of West Virginia v. Barnette: If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

A loss further insulates the Sexual Revolution from moral critique. So much of the cultural debate around religious liberty exists because Christianity and other religious voices utilize broad constitutional protections that allow for moral judgment and moral critique of the ethics of the Sexual Revolution. A loss in this case would signal that the Sexual Revolution has achieved yet another level of protection from dissenting voices that offer a different account of sexual morality. To foreclose one’s self from the ability to hear different opinions eliminates the possibility of personal discovery and social reform. Progressives want to banish Christian views around sexuality from common acceptance because they represent an impediment to progressive sexual ethics claiming cultural victory.

Culture will further depict Christian perspectives on sexuality as outside the bounds of acceptable views to hold in public spaces. The further that law moves in the direction of solidifying the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity into the strictest echelons of non-discrimination statute, the more likely it is that Christian views contrary to established law will be disfavored, marginalized, or punished. Law will use the momentum of Masterpiece’s fallout to paint Christian perspectives on sexuality as discriminatory and fair game for restricting them in certain cultural spheres.

A win signals that courts and the law can make rightful distinctions between a person’s conduct and a person’s status. It is clear from the facts of the case that Jack Phillips engaged in no such acts of invidious discrimination. It is right for the Supreme Court and law to recognize a status-conduct distinction in emotionally fraught religious liberty and non-discrimination conflicts. Jack Phillips objected to designing a custom cake for an event; he did not object to making a custom cake for the same-sex couple because they were a same-sex couple. Were the same couple to ask Phillips for a custom birthday cake so that they could celebrate one another’s birthdays, Phillips would surely have consented.

A win signals that Christian viewpoints on sexuality will not be construed as irrational, prejudiced, or held for reasons of animus. Even in the event of a loss, it would never be accurate to depict Christian convictions around sexuality as irrational, prejudiced, or animus-driven. Christians insist that our views our truthful and ennobling for persons and societies. Other voices in the culture, however, have deep-seated contempt for Christian teaching on these subjects and want them sidelined. Tragically, these are the stakes of the religious liberty challenges we now find ourselves in. The overwhelming majority of liberal groups have proven themselves unwilling to acknowledge the sincere, goodwill basis that Christians hold forth on their understanding of marriage, sexuality, and gender. To the extent that Christian sexual ethics are regarded as grounded in prejudice or animus, law will make no positive overtures to countenance views it seeks to see banish. We should thus hope and pray for an outcome that results in the Supreme Court understanding that Christian convictions around sexual ethics are rationally based and aimed at advancing the common good.

A win or a loss may communicate or determine the public policy posture of law toward persons and institutions with a confessional identity. Again, depending on the nature of the ruling and the implications of its orders, the outcome of the Masterpiece case will have significant trajectory-setting implications. That, in fact, is the most important element of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case altogether. Because the Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on the question of how to handle religious liberty and non-discrimination conflicts, how it rules will set the stage for how public policy begins weighing the priority of religious liberty for individuals and institutions against claims of discrimination and dignitary harm. Though no one can write with certainty at this time because the case has not yet been decided, this case will not likely predetermine the outcome for all future conflicts, but it will certainly offer a precedent that future conflicts will recall. In this account, the future viability not only of commercial institutions run by Christians are at stake, but also any other confessional institution, whether public or private. For these reasons, Christians and Christians institutions of all stripes have a vested interest in seeing Jack Phillips prevail at the Supreme Court.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24