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Explainer: Supreme Court supports baker in an important religious liberty case

Today the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the most important religious freedom case of the year. Here is what you should know about the case and the Court’s decision:

What just happened?

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.

What was the case about?

In the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court was asked to decide whether the First Amendment is violated when a state punishes a citizen for refusing, for reasons of religious conscience, to create a cake that celebrates a same-sex wedding. (ERLC joined other Baptist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim denominational entities, colleges and universities, legal associations, and individuals in filing an amicus brief on behalf of Phillips.)

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, declined to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding because he believes it would be sinful to participate in celebrating a same-sex wedding. Despite the fact that another bakery readily created the cake the couple wanted, they brought a sexual-orientation-discrimination claim against Phillips. A state civil rights commission found Jack Phillips had violated Colorado law and prohibited him from creating cakes for any wedding unless he also created cakes for same-sex weddings.

Phillips appealed to Colorado’s appellate court, which upheld the commission’s ruling, and the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, granted review of his free speech and free exercise claims and heard oral arguments on December 5.

How did the Court rule?

In the majority decision, the Court noted that the “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.”

The Court notes that it is difficult to determine whether a baker has a valid free exercise or free speech claim, and the extent to which a baker should be allowed to refuse to provide service.

What was clear, according to the Court’s majority, is that Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was “inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality.” When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, says the Court, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.

The Court also notes that at several points during its meeting, commissioners endorsed the view that “religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community.” A commissioner on the panel even suggested that Phillips can believe “what he wants to believe,” but cannot act on his religious beliefs “if he decides to do business in the state.” Another commissioner at a later hearing pointed out that religious freedom had been used to “justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust,”  and said that “to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.”

The Court found that these comments—which were not objected to by other commissioners or even mentioned in later state-court rulings—cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case.

The Commission had also ruled against Phillips using the justification that any message the requested wedding cake would carry would be attributed to the customer, not to the baker. Yet in three separate cases, the Commission had previously ruled that bakers were allowed to refuse to create cakes with images that conveyed disapproval of same-sex marriage and that had included religious text. The Court found this to be further evidence that Phillips was not being treated neutrally by the commission.

Because of this open bias, the Court concluded that “the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the State’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint.”

How did the justices vote in this case?

Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Bryer, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Thomas voted in favor of Masterpiece Cake Shop. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor voted in dissent and joined in a dissenting opinion.

Justice Gorsuch wrote a separate concurring opinion that articulated an even more robust defense of religious liberty than the majority opinion. Justice Thomas wrote a separate concurring opinion taking up and defending Jack Phillips’ free speech claims under the First Amendment.

What are the broader implications of this case?

Despite a strong majority of justices voting in support of the decision, the implications for religious liberty are rather narrow in scope, and it is difficult to know how it will affect similar cases. “In this case the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward in the respects noted above,” says the Court. “However later cases raising these or similar concerns are resolved in the future, for these reasons the rulings of the Commission and of the state court that enforced the Commission’s order must be invalidated.”

As the Court concludes, “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

What is significant about the case, though, is that the Court reiterated, as Justice Kagan says, that “state actors cannot show hostility to religious views; rather, they must give those views “neutral and respectful consideration.”

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