Religious freedom groups cheered Monday’s 7-2 Supreme Court decision that a Colorado baker had his rights violated when the state civil rights commission said he was required to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
"Today's 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,” said leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“This extends to creative professionals, such as Jack Phillips, who seek to serve the Lord in every aspect of their daily lives. In a pluralistic society like ours, true tolerance allows people with different viewpoints to be free to live out their beliefs, even if those beliefs are unpopular with the government."
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, chair of the bishops’ religious liberty committee, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, head of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, and Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, chair of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, released a joint statement Monday applauding the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, saying that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed a constitutionally unacceptable hostility toward religion when it ruled that he had discriminated against a same-sex couple who requested a wedding cake from his bakery back in 2012.
Phillips, a devout Christian, said repeatedly throughout the case that he would have no issue serving gay customers in a context outside of a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. In adherence to his religious beliefs, he also refuses to make Halloween cakes, products with alcohol, and cakes for bachelor parties.
“The Court reached the right outcome,” Princeton law professor Robert George told CNA.
He said Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, writing in concurring opinions, “got there for the right reasons,” while the majority opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, was “valid but incomplete, and leave[s] issues unresolved that would have been resolved properly had the key points in the Gorsuch opinion been added.”
The Court stopped short of setting a major precedent, and instead tailored the decision to this particular case. However, supporters of Phillips said the decision still marked an important victory.
“Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society, yet the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage. The court was right to condemn that,” said Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which was representing Phillips.
“Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a society like ours. This decision makes clear that the government must respect Jack’s beliefs about marriage,” Waggoner said in a statement.
The opinion was authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, something that surprised Brian Miller, an attorney for the Center for Individual Rights.
“Even before getting to the text, the decision comes with surprises. Despite being one of the most controversial cases of the term, the justices didn't split along partisan lines,” said Miller.
While Ginsburg and Sotomayor are typically on the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer do not generally lean conservative. Some commenters were surprised to see that they sided with the court’s conservative wing in this case.
“The Court's holding is narrow,” Miller told CNA, “and insists that it is possible to both protect against discrimination and protect religious freedom. That principle will be important for states to remember going forward."
Becket Law President Mark Rienzi expanded further on this, saying, “The Court has said 7-2 that the Constitution requires us all to try and get along. There is room enough in our society for a diversity of viewpoints, and that includes respecting religious beliefs too.”
George warned that the reasoning behind the majority’s ruling could be used to oppose religious freedom in the future.
“As it stands, there is a danger that state officials will interpret the decision as licensing discrimination against Christians and other religious people so long as those officials don’t reveal their anti-Christian or anti-religious animus in public statements,” he cautioned.
Still, he said, the decision offers an optimistic look at the court’s newest addition, Justice Gorsuch.
“This case shows that Justice Gorsuch is not only a faithful constitutionalist, he has the potential to be one of history’s greatest Supreme Court justices,” George said.