The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in the case of Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In the 7-2 decision, the Court found in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because it violated his religious beliefs.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a narrow decision that did not really settle the issue. The Justice wrote of the importance of both sides in the argument.
“Our society has come to recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” wrote Kennedy. However, he also said, “The religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”
The Court’s decision was primarily about an individual getting a fair hearing before a government body, and Phillips did not. The complaint against Phillips reached the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It held public meetings on the complaint where commissioners were openly hostile to Phillips’ religious views.
One commissioner said Phillips could believe what he wants to believe, but he would have to temper those views if he wanted to do business in the state. At a second meeting, another commissioner compared Phillips views to historic injustices.
“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,” the commissioner said. “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 their religion to hurt others.”
Justice Kennedy found it inappropriate “for a commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law” to take those positions.
Additionally, the Justice pointed out that on at least three other occasions the commission sided with bakers who refused to create cakes with images and messages “that conveyed disapproval [emphasis added] of same-sex marriage, along with religious text.”
Kennedy concluded that the supposedly independent commission was sitting in judgment of the worthiness of an individual’s beliefs, and that ran afoul of the “State’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to religion or a religious viewpoint.”
Notably, a famous West Virginia case came into play in Kennedy’s decision. He cited West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette, where the Court found that forcing students to salute the American flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance in school violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “No official, high or petty, can prescript what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”
So the baker v. gay couple wedding cake issue isn’t really settled by this decision. Justice Kennedy admitted to that, adding that “these disputes must be resolved with tolerance” for sincerely held religious beliefs and without subjecting gays to indignities of discrimination.
However, the decision is an important reminder that the government must be neutral toward religion. Phillips had a right to a fair and impartial hearing before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the hostility toward him and his faith violated that protection.