Masterpiece ruling: A good trajectory for the future of Christians in the public square

June 4, 2018

It would be a mistake to interpret today’s Supreme Court ruling as an overwhelmingly sweeping win, or one that resolves all the ongoing tensions over religious liberty and LGBT rights. The ERLC has an explainer on the case.

Legal experts are of a mind that today’s opinion has many facts about the case that do not provide all the desired wants social conservatives and Christians might desire. So, I want to chasten against the impression that the Masterpiece Cakeshop’s case is the hook to hang the future of religious liberty’s hat on. It is not.

But what happened? In the words of ERLC staffer Joe Carter, “The Court ruled in a 7-2 decision the actions by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s violated the Free Exercise Clause of a Christian baker who refused to create a cake for a same-sex wedding.” In the eyes of the Supreme Court, the Colorado Commission did not treat Jack Phillips impartially, but in fact engaged in a reverse sort of discrimination against him.

But it is worth pausing to consider one elements of today’s outcome that, at least for today, is encouraging and what it means for Christians in our culture.

Ruling against government hostility toward religion

In an important line of the Court’s reasoning authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court wrote that “laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect gay persons and gay couples in the exercise of their civil rights, but religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”

This is not an insignificant line to dwell on. The Court did not lay animus or prejudice at the feet of Jack Phillips. The Court did not equate the views of Bible-believing Christians who share a long-held conviction of marriage with rank bigotry. The Court ruled against government hostility to religion.

Why does this matter? Because there are voices coming from mainstream segments of society that want to equate goodwill convictions on marriage held by Bible-believing Christians as the same types of views held by hood-wearing Klansmen of the KKK. That is one of the main reasons that progressives are upset about today’s ruling. It is less about a denial of goods (because the vast majority of businesses have no problem making custom cakes for a same-sex wedding) and more about progressivism’s insistence and expectation that the Supreme Court adopt the posture of treating any disagreement with the Sexual Revolution as an irrational form of prejudice held for no other reason than hate.

The instances that promote this line of thinking are almost too much to document at this point.

A LGBT donor, Tim Gill, said he wanted to fund LGBT political initiatives in conservative states to “punish the wicked.”

Mark Tushnet, a Harvard law professor, wrote that cultural progressives should treat Christians like the Allies treated defeated Nazi Germany. In other words, brook no compromise.

Jack Phillips was accused of being a bigot, and of holding views equated with Nazism.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court answered this intolerant retort by confirming that religious and philosophical views on marriage are within the penumbra of acceptable views, and views that can be acted on in society.

There’s growing concern on what role evangelical Christians can have in a culture that maligns biblical views on marriage as bigoted. What mainstream access can Christians have in a culture when its views are no longer in the mainstream? That’s an unsettled question, but the Supreme Court answered today with an encouraging reply.

Whatever the implications this ruling has for future cases is unknown. And indeed, given the narrowness of the decision’s construction, different facts in a different context could produce an outcome completely unfavorable for religious liberty. But for today at least, Christians should be thankful for how the Supreme Court ruled.

It’s worth reiterating that Christians are not the weird ones for our understanding of what defines a marriage. We believe that marriage is comprehensive in that it unites not only hearts and minds, but also bodies. From the wellspring of the marital union comes the potential for new life. Marriage is about something more than the intensity of emotions between two persons. Marriage is grounded in the anthropological truth that men and women are different; the biological truth that only men and women can reproduce; and the sociological reality that the seedbed for society and child flourishing is the natural family.

Let’s hope the opinion today continues a future trajectory for religious liberty at the Supreme Court and more broadly through the culture.

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