The Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is a narrow win for Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who declined to create a custom cake for a wedding between two men.
Although this case was litigated for years as a free-speech case, the justices instead found a way to decide the case on very narrow religious-freedom grounds.
The Court did not decide whether, in this particular case, Mr. Phillips’s freedom of speech was violated when Colorado officials sanctioned him for refusing to create the cake. Instead, the majority determined that the officials’ decision was unconstitutionally tainted by ‘hostility’ to Mr. Phillips’s religious views.
It is well-established that the First Amendment requires ‘neutrality’ toward religion by government officials and regulators. A government decision animated by or reflecting ‘religious hostility on the part of the State’ is very difficult to justify.
Today’s narrow and fact-specific ruling allows the Court to avoid drawing difficult lines between expressive conduct, on the one hand, and ordinary commercial services, on the other.
It tells us very little about how similar cases should be resolved in the future. Instead of providing a bright-line rule, the Court made this particular case go away and urged citizens, courts, and officials going forward to resolve such cases with, in Justice Kennedy’s words, ‘tolerance, without undue respect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
The Court affirmed that religious and other conscientious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage are constitutionally protected, even when unpopular. The justices recognized that deep and sincere disagreements persist about these matters and that both our First Amendment and the needs of civil society require balance, understanding, and humility.
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