Today, in a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips and the Masterpiece Cake Shop. It’s not the ruling that many wanted, but it does rule that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was inapporpriately hostile toward Phillip’s religious liberty claim.
The ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is not the wide-ranging ruling on religious liberty that some expected. It is tailored to the case at hand with the justices holding that members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed animus toward Phillips specifically when they suggested his claims of religious freedom was made to justify discrimination.
In doing so, the Supreme Court is still working to set an important line where Christians can and will choose to dissent from the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in society. And, this is a significant moment as it is the first major ruling since Obergefell, which made same-sex marriage the law of the land.
However, it is not the final moment. For example, Justice Kennedy commented that:
Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach.
That language points to more challenges to come. However, this ruling does offer us an opportunity to consider how Christians might respond.
Quick background: Jack Phillips is a Colorado baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple because of his Christian faith. Phillips does not design cakes for any events that conflict with his Christian values or beliefs. He believes he has the right to do this according to the First Amendment. However, even if he does not design a custom cake for a customer, he offers any baked goods or premade cakes to anyone who enters his shop.
The religious dilemma
The fact of the matter is that Christians and members of other religions are now holding a minority view. Along with that minority view comes the challenge of how those Christians relate to a broader culture that actually sees same-sex marriage in a different light than they do.
Christians who do not affirm same-sex marriage believe their views come from their faith and the teachings of scripture. However, the broader society sees same-sex marriage as a justice issue. Christians discriminating against LGBT persons by not participating in their wedding, for example, is an unjust act similar to when laws prevented interracial marriage.
Thus, for many people, these are examples of Christians discriminating on the basis of immutable characteristics, similar to race. One woman put it this way: “Why would I purchase from Masterpiece, which has decided to inflict its personal beliefs on the public it relies on?” (Leslie Levy in a letter to the Denver Post).
The Supreme Court rules for religious liberty
Today, the Supreme Court ruled, explaining:
“Whatever the confluence of speech and free exercise principles might be in some cases, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality. The reason and motive for the baker’s refusal were based on his sincere religious beliefs and convictions. The Court’s precedents make clear that the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws. Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach. That requirement, however, was not met here. When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.” (2-3)
“Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.” (9) (Bold added)
In March of 2014, Ross Douthat wrote about the inevitability of the Supreme Court redefining marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states. He anticipated the increased likelihood of societal and governmental pressure for dissenters to conform, ultimately leading to a settlement that the victors would impose on the defeated.
Today’s decision balances the scales somewhat.
The law of the land is now same-sex marriage, and I think we can make the assumption that there is not a likely scenario in which religious institutions (like churches) would be forced to participate.
However, there are real issues, and the Supreme Court is stating that there is more work to do. This was one of those cases, and it is an important one. The Supreme Court recognized what many did not—there are religious liberty issues at stake.
Finding that line
Somewhere between churches not being required to host same-sex weddings and society accepting same-sex marriage is a line where the accommodation has been made for the sincerely-held religious belief of Christians while still protecting the rights of LGBT persons to function in line with the law of the land regarding same-sex marriage.
So today the Supreme Court has sought to address that line. To be honest, it’s disappointing to see that many have not seen the necessity of this line. For example, we’ve seen states seek to pass laws that would draw a line to protect an individual’s conscience, but those have been widely attacked and mischaracterized in the mainstream media.
Yes, it’s disappointing that it took the Supreme Court to recognize the religious liberty issues in the Jack Phillips and the Masterpiece Cake Shop case.
Will fellow Christians stand for those who dissent?
The Supreme Court decision today is perhaps a prophetic reminder to some Christians who might say, “Just bake the cake.” However, I believe that we ought simultaneously say, “We have to maintain the rights of dissenters in our society.”
Our society has already accepted same-sex marriage. But for people of faith, this does not mean that we must leave our religious beliefs behind because we don’t live in a country where only the freedom to worship is protected.
No, it is also freedom of religion. That’s the first freedom in our Constitution, and as much as some do not like it, that freedom applies to people like Jack Phillips.
So, you don’t have to agree with Phillip’s decision, but you might want to consider his religious liberty. That’s what the Supreme Court did.
Freedom of religion, not just worship
Rather, we have freedom of religion, which means we cannot be forced to participate in, under threat of law, activities which violate our values. I, for one, am glad the Supreme Court did weigh in on that subject— though there is more to do.
Jack Phillips was willing to sell anything in the bake shop to any same-sex couple. What he was unwilling to do was to use his artistic gifts to celebrate in both artistry and words a marriage with which he disagrees on theological and biblical grounds. Sadly, many have tried to turn Jack Phillips into a bigot—this includes many who should have come to his defense, including some Christians.
They were wrong, and perhaps the Supreme Court can show them why.
A secular Supreme Court did come to his defense, and in doing so, reminded us all that there is a reason that religious liberty is the first liberty. We should protect it as such and work together to live in a world where Christians and people of other faiths who dissent from the majority view have their religious beliefs accomodated.
Where from here?
All of us—the majority culture, LGBT people, Christians, etc.–must live in this country together. To do that, we need to acknowledge the rights of all people, and not just our own. Today, the Supreme Court took a step toward finding that line.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas explained:
In Obergefell, I warned that the Court’s decision would “inevitabl[y] . . . come into conflict” with religious liberty, “as individuals . . . are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” 576 U. S., at ___ (dissenting opinion) (slip op., at 15). This case proves that the conflict has already emerged. Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day. But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to “stamp out every vestige of dissent” and “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” Id., at ___ (ALITO, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 6). If that freedom is to maintain its vitality, reasoning like the Colorado Court of Appeals’ must be rejected. (14)
So, as the majority opinion stated, “The religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.” Now, we will take a few years to figure out how and when they are protected.
These religious liberty issues are going to continue. But, it makes me wonder: Why was it so hard for Jack Phillip’s brothers and sisters in Christ to stand up for his religious liberty? Perhaps this is a good time for many Christians to answer that question, because this is not the last religious liberty case before us.
You might have just baked the cake, but none of us should want to live in an America where someone loses his or her business because of the religious objections of someone like Jack Phillips.
We will be updating this article throughout the day with more details.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.