By Bob Smietana
The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Christian baker on Monday—saying Colorado officials had ridiculed his faith after he refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
In a 7-2 ruling, the court decided the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had been openly hostile to religion in the case of Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Boulder, Colorado.
The ruling does not address whether a Christian baker can refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. Instead, it says courts have to take religious objections seriously.
In his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated Phillips’ case may have merit, even without the religious hostility demonstrated by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
“The religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression,” Kennedy wrote.
Phillips refused to bake a custom wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012. He claimed making the cake would have violated his religious beliefs.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled Phillips was guilty of discrimination. If he wanted to continue making wedding cakes, he had to sell them to same-sex and heterosexual couples alike, the ruling said.
Phillips disagreed. He said the ruling violated his religious beliefs—and his right to free speech as an artist. He stopped making custom wedding cakes for several years.
He also appealed the ruling to state courts in Colorado and eventually the Supreme Court.
“What a cake celebrating this event would communicate was a message that contradicts my deepest religious convictions, and as an artist, that’s just not something I’m able to do, so I politely declined,” he explained in an essay for USA Today.
“But this wasn’t just a business decision. More than anything else, it was a reflection of my commitment to my faith. My religious convictions on this are grounded in the biblical teaching that God designed marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
The Supreme Court did not directly rule on the merits of Phillips’ arguments. Instead, the court focused on how Colorado officials had demeaned his faith.
“When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires,” wrote Kennedy.
The court based its ruling largely on comments made by Colorado officials during hearings on Phillips’ case. More than one commissioner ridiculed Phillips’ faith, according to the ruling. That sent a message that “religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community.”
Kennedy highlighted this statement by one of the commissioners as evidence of hostility to religious beliefs:
“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.”
Those comments were inappropriate, said Kennedy. And no other commissioner raised any objection to those comments.
Kennedy pointed out that the commission is charged with enforcing laws that ban “discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”
The civil rights commission had also failed to be impartial in its dealings with Phillips, said the Supreme Court.
Complaints had been brought against three other bakers who turned down requests to bake cakes that criticized same-sex weddings. The commission ruled those bakers were not guilty of discrimination. At the time, state law allowed shopkeepers to turn down some messages with which they disagreed.
The commission treated Phillips differently from those other bakers, said Kennedy.
“In view of these factors, the record here demonstrates that the Commission’s consideration of Phillips’ case was neither tolerant nor respectful of his religious beliefs,” wrote Kennedy.
Dissenting, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg acknowledged that some of the commission’s comments had been hostile. But she argued the lower courts had gotten it right.
Phillips, she wrote, had still discriminated against a gay couple.
“What matters is that Phillips would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple,” she wrote.
After the ruling, Phillips said he was grateful things had gone in his favor.
“It’s hard to believe that the government punished me for operating my business consistent with my beliefs about marriage. That isn’t freedom or tolerance,” Phillips said in a statement. “I’m so thankful to the U.S. Supreme Court for this ruling.”
This is the second time in recent weeks that a court has ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make a custom same-sex wedding cake.
In California, Judge David Lampe ruled that Cathy Miller, owner of Tastries Bakery in Bakersfield, California, did not violate state non-discrimination laws when she refused to make a wedding cake for Mireya and Eileen Rodriguez-Del Rio, a same-sex couple.
“No artist, having placed their work for public sale, may refuse to sell for an unlawful discriminatory reason,” the court said in its ruling. “No baker may place their wares in a public display case, open their shop, and then refuse to sell because of race, religion, gender, or gender identification.”
However, things are different with special orders, the court ruled.
“The difference here is that the cake is not yet baked,” wrote Judge David Lampe.
- Court Rules in Favor of Christian Baker
- Growing Share of Evangelicals Supports Same-Sex Marriage
- When Sex and Religion Conflict, What Should Win?
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.