The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a religious freedom victory to a Colorado baker who’s been through the legal wringer ever since he declined to bake a cake for a gay wedding in 2012.
The justices deftly sifted through the narrative that Jack Phillips’ bigotry led to unjust discrimination against a protected class. As facts emerged, so did an aftertaste of religious discrimination from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
The court found that Phillips wasn’t against selling products to people in the LGBTQ community. After private consultation with the same-sex couple, Phillips told them, “I’ll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.”
This ruling is of particular interest to Kentuckians as a case pending in the state Supreme Court will answer whether a local sexual-orientation and gender-identity nondiscrimination provision can compel a Lexington printer to provide T-shirts with messages that violate his religious beliefs.
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In Phillips’ case, SCOTUS found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was hostile to his religious beliefs in a 2014 hearing, likening his refusal to provide the wedding cake to a pretext for bigotry on par with those who hid behind religion to perpetrate “slavery” and the “holocaust” and calling his claims a “despicable piece of rhetoric.”
One commissioner said 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.”
The court found that “the Commission’s consideration of Phillips’ case was neither tolerant nor respectful of his religious beliefs ...” According to the ruling, declining to serve a gay couple in a public context is different than declining to use artistic talents that send messages celebrating that couple’s marriage.
Conflating such facts were convenient and effective for the LGBT cause and may have momentarily swayed public opinion. But careful analysis of details and constitutional principles led to religious freedom prevailing in the court’s final judgment.
The court noted that on three separate occasions the commission upheld the rights of secular bakers to decline cakes with religious messages they believed offensive.
The commission favored the couple’s appeal for sexual-orientation protections while at the same time denying Phillips’ appeal to his religious conviction, which is equally protected by the law.
The court reset the terms of the religious-liberty debate. It made clear in its 7-2 ruling that “the law must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.” It also helps us to see that differences of opinion on moral issues don’t make dissenters societal monsters deserving of marginalization.
Kentucky’s Blaine Adamson of Hands on Originals finds himself in Phillips’ shoes before the Kentucky Supreme Court. In 2012, Adamson was dragged before the Lexington Human Rights Commission after he declined to fulfill a T-shirt order for organizers of Lexington’s gay pride festival. His appeal to religious freedom fell on deaf ears.
Fortunately for Adamson, the Supreme Court’s ruling in effect restores dignity to people committed to religious beliefs and affirms that their conscience rights extend into the marketplace — something the First Amendment guarantees for each of us.
Richard Nelson of Cadiz is executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center.