Written by Don Byrd

Government agencies must address claims for religious accommodation with “respectful consideration” and religious neutrality. That was the central message the U.S. Supreme Court delivered Monday morning in its ruling in the closely watched case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights CommissionSiding with Jack Phillips, the cakeshop owner who objected on religious grounds to creating a cake to celebrate a same-sex wedding, the 7-2 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy emphasized facts specific to the case, but it declined to resolve the broader question that captured the attention of so many advocates and court-watchers.

Masterpiece Cakeshop centers around a Colorado law barring businesses that are generally open to the public from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Declining to provide a cake for a same-sex marriage celebration, Phillips was charged with violation of that law, but claimed (among other things) a religious freedom protection against enforcing it in his case.

The majority opinion acknowledged the important interests on both sides:

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.

Ultimately, the Court’s ruling in favor of Mr. Phillips turned on the majority’s conclusion that the state Civil Rights Commission adjudicated his claim from a perspective based in animus toward the cakemaker’s religious views. In other words, the state cannot properly weigh a religious freedom claim, the Court indicated, if “religious hostility” is a factor in the decision. Here is an excerpt from Justice Kennedy’s opinion, in which he recounts a meeting of Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission to make this point:

On July 25, 2014, the Commission met again. … The commissioner stated:

“I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. 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.”

To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere. The commissioner even went so far as to compare Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s antidiscrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.

Justice Kennedy also found fault with the fact that the Commission had ruled in favor of other bakers who refused to create cakes with messages disapproving of same-sex marriage. Such a disparity, he wrote, indicated that the “State’s practice was to disfavor the religious basis of [Phillips’] objection.

Despite ruling in favor of the cake owner, however, the majority went out of its way to explain that another case posing the same constitutional question, but without the religious hostility highlighted here, could easily come out the other way:

In this case the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward in the respects noted above. However later cases raising these or similar concerns are resolved in the future, for these reasons the rulings of the Commission and of the state court that enforced the Commission’s order must be invalidated. The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market. 

Masterpiece Cakeshop forced a contentious constitutional question onto a central faultline in our culturally fractured democracy: where a state law prohibits discrimination, does the First Amendment shield business owners who have religious objections to same-sex marriage from having to provide services that contribute to the celebration of a same-sex wedding? After today’s ruling, the question remains unresolved.

What is clear from the decision is summed up well by the Baptist Joint Committee’s Holly Hollman, who issued a statement following the ruling that said, in part:

“Religious liberty protects beliefs and actions related to marriage. It does not mean that religious beliefs provide blanket exemptions to nondiscrimination laws that protect our neighbors. Religious objectors, like all Americans, have the right to be treated with respect and not to have their religious beliefs denigrated. 

As we consider these difficult issues in future cases, we all will fare better when we acknowledge the legitimate interests on both sides of these disputes and approach each other with civility and respect.”

You can read the decision here. In addition to Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion, it also includes concurring opinions by Justice Gorsuch, Kagan, and Thomas, and a dissenting opinion from Justice Ginsburg.