The Supreme Court ruling of 7-2 in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop has sparked a lively debate regarding the limits of rights and protections, and the implications of the court’s decision. The ordeal began when Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado bakery, refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. When it was announced the Supreme Court would hear the case in December 2017, the debate centered around freedom of speech and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”
Some deemed the cake a form of artistic expression, and others, including Phillips himself, pointed out the religious nature of a wedding: “This cake is a specific cake, a wedding cake is an inherently religious event and the cake is definitely a specific message,” (NBC News).
Despite the government’s issuance of marriage licenses today, a wedding is an age-old social and religious institution. Although same-sex marriage is legal, insofar as same-sex marriage licenses are issued by the government, the absurdity of the state forcing a Christian priest or pastor to marry a same-sex couple is evident. Phillips did not want to participate in a same-sex wedding on religious grounds, but insists he does not discriminate: “I don't discriminate against anybody — I serve everybody that comes in my shop,” Phillips said. “I don't create cakes for every message that people ask me to create” (NBC News).
This brings up an important distinction – Phillips offered the gay couple pre-made cakes in the shop. Had he denied the couple service altogether, I believe this case would have been much closer, or even gone in favor of Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Commission is the real reason why Phillips won the case: 7 out of the 9 justices were on some level uncomfortable with the Commission’s actions due to their personal disapproval of Phillips’ religious beliefs regarding marriage. Justice Kennedy said that “the Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection (to making the cake).”
The case has been deemed “narrow,” meaning that the precedent it set will not apply to many future cases. It is fortunate that Phillips won, but truly unfortunate that a more conclusive decision protecting freedom of speech did not result. The decision appears to be a compromise facilitated by the more moderate justices such as Kennedy, and the result is a safe, politically correct, non-statement from the government whose only real job is to protect individual freedoms.
I’m not surprised. A good portion of American society has ceased to understand the meaning of the words “freedom,” “right,” and “discrimination.” The First Amendment declares freedom of religion, which many interpret to mean freedom from religion.
Religions are ideologies – you can tell because they often end with “-ism.” Just as Judaism, Christianity/Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism etc. have moral codes and beliefs set in stone, so do practitioners of or believers in communism, socialism, libertarianism, liberalism, atheism, agnosticism, Confucianism, existentialism… you get the point. A well-rounded person (who isn’t an ideologue) may find their principles in many ideologies, but it is certain that ideas or truths make up your values. Your values then determine your actions – unless the government stops you. In that case, you act at your peril.
Phillips acted on his beliefs at his peril on July 19, 2012 when he chose not to make a gay wedding cake, prompting the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to order Masterpiece Cakeshop to alter its policy and participate in gay weddings, or else face devastating fines. According to The Federalist, Masterpiece Cakeshop was also required to train their staff in the new government-imposed dogma, ensure compliance, and file quarterly obedience reports with the state of Colorado for two years. In these reports, Phillips was to describe the remedial measures the shop had taken to meet the Commission’s demands and document the reasons any other patrons were denied service.
Gay marriage was not legal at the time of the incident, giving the Commission even fewer ways to justify their hostility to Masterpiece Cakeshop, and confirming that this was a case of corrupt government employees using their power to force their sincerely held beliefs on Phillips.
Regarding the incident, Diann Rice of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission said, “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be — I mean, we — we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And 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 truth is, Diann Rice and the rest of the Commission used their personal beliefs to justify discrimination against Christians in their handling of the matter. Remember our discussion of ideology, values and action? The main point of religion is to be able to discriminate between right and wrong. Based on Christianity, homosexuality is wrong. Evidently, based on whatever ideology members of the Commission adhere to, Christianity is wrong. The difference between these two scenarios is not much – except for the very important fact that the Commission used the power of the state to force someone to act in adherence with their dogma.
As divided as we are, all Americans should cheer the Supreme Court’s decision, and perhaps lament the fact that it didn’t go further. No one can predict who is going to be in power at any point in the future, so it’s crucial to err on the side of freedom and uphold the First Amendment. The First Amendment prevents the government – majority Republican or majority Democrat, state or federal – from outlawing your right to live as you believe is morally right. That is something we can all celebrate.