For many people in this country — an estimated 10 million that identify as LBGTQ, as well as their countless supporters — the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case was going to answer a question that, despite marriage being fully legalized in 2015, still loomed over the country: when it comes to freedom of religion and expression against civil rights, which one wins out?
In a ruling that was both disappointing and relieving at the same time, the Supreme Court declined to answer that question. Instead, the Court’s decision to overturn the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and acquit Jack Phillips of discriminating against a gay couple emphasized the absolute necessity of a neutral, impartial justice system.
In its 7-2 ruling, the Court decided the Colorado Civil Rights Commission “showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs” that led Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, to deny selling Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig a wedding cake, and because the Commission’s actions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, “it’s order must be set aside.”
Back in May 2014, the seven-member Commission held its first public hearing on Phillips’ case, where he was arguing his artistic skills as a master cake maker equated to an expressive statement, and making a cake for a gay couple violated his freedom of expression (or rather, the freedom to not express) because he believed it was not only illegal for gay couples to get married in Colorado at the time (it was illegal at the time) but also because he believed it was a sin under his religious point-of-view.
The Commission responded with some questionable language.
“[I]f a businessman wants to do business in the state and he’s got an issue with the law’s impacting his personal belief system, he needs to look at being able to compromise,” one commissioner 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… we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination,” another commissioner said at a July 2014 meeting. “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 Supreme Court fixated on these quotes, as well as the fact that there were no objection from other commissioners (and remember, this Commission is tasked with fairly and neutrally enforcing the state’s anti-discrimination laws), there was no mention of these quotes when the state Court of Appeals upheld the Commission’s ruling, and there was again no disavowal of these quotes in briefs to the Supreme Court itself.
If it was just these statements, the Court might have ruled differently.
But the Supreme Court also found the Commission actively treated Phillips’ case differently than three other cases brought before them. In these cases, one William Jack went to three bakeries and requested a cake with anti same-sex marriage decorations and religious text. When all three bakeries refused Jack’s service and Jack took them to the Commission, the Commission found the bakeries did not violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws, because the baker found the cakes hateful and discriminatory.
“The treatment of the conscience-based objections at issue in these three cases contrasts with the Commission’s treatment of Phillip’s case,” the Court’s ruling reads. “The Commission ruled against [Jack] Phillips in part on the theory that any message the requested wedding cake would carry would be attributed to the customer, not the baker. Yet the [Commission] did not address this point in any of the other cases with respect to the cakes depicting anti-gay marriage symbolism.”
Essentially, the Supreme Court saw the Commission held a double standard.
So as much as I may vehemently disagree with Jack Phillip’s worldview (and yes, his actions were discriminatory), I can’t find fault with the Court’s ruling; double standards cannot exist within our freedom of expression or our civil rights, no matter how the double standard may favor me and my line of thinking.
The Masterpiece Bakery case brought with it complex questions and extensive consequences that can’t be addressed until a strong foundation has been set in lower courts. Unfortunately, it appears there were some cracks in that foundation this time around.
But the Court’s decision, and more importantly, the language it used to emphasize the importance of LGBTQ civil rights gives me hope that the next time such a case is in front of them (and there will be a next time), our Justices will help America take one step closer toward true equality.
We didn’t win, but we didn’t lose, either. Let’s play again.