At Work & Public Square

Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court’s Cakeshop Decision

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In a highly anticipated decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday on the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC) case. In a 7 to 2 ruling, the Court overturned the decision of the lower Colorado court, which is good news. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not resolve the broader issue of whether a business owner has the right to refuse to perform services that violate his or her religious beliefs and convictions.

Court Identifies an Anti-Religious Bias

Many who believed that this case would be a showdown between anti-discrimination laws and the First Amendment right of religious freedom were disappointed. The court sidestepped this major issue and instead Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a narrow ruling focused on what the court described as an anti-religious bias by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission when it ruled against Christian baker Jack Phillips.

Even in 2015, as the Masterpiece Cakeshop controversy was playing out, another upset bakery customer named Bill Jack filed a suit with the CCRC because a different Colorado bakery would not decorate a cake for him with text opposing same-sex marriage. The CRCC threw out his case because they concluded that a bakery could not be forced to write a message that it found offensive or objectionable.

This stands in stark contrast to the reasoning they used against Jack Phillips in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, reinforcing the Supreme Court’s accusation of anti-religious bias. The majority opinion concluded:

The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided. 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.

In one of the more promising references, Kennedy implied the importance of religious minorities being able to live out their faith in the public sphere, something the opposition had argued against in the past. His opinion states:

At several points during its meeting, commissioners endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community.

However, Kennedy and the court deferred ruling on the broader issue for some future case, which in their words, “must await further elaboration.”

Right to Follow One’s Conscience

The positive though obscure results in this case are a great reminder to remain vigilant in the support for religious freedom and the freedom of conscience.

There are many who believe the First Amendment is the most important part of the U.S. Bill of Rights. It protects the most fundamental of rights―the right of conscience. Scripture itself advocates for this freedom,

For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you (2 Cor. 1:12).

Paul argues for a right to freedom of conscience even when people’s views are misguided (Rom. 14).

Out of this First Amendment freedom flow freedom of speech, which includes freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom to petition, and freedom to associate. These all protect our freedom to believe and express our beliefs in different ways, making democratic self-government possible.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision is not only important to Christians but to all U.S. citizens. No one deserves to be marginalized if their beliefs are outside the favored viewpoint. Since Christians are called to love and serve our neighbors, we should be willing to sacrifice our time and resources to protect religious freedom for everyone. We do it because we are defending a freedom that God has given to us all.

Even though this is a small victory in the right direction, it remains somewhat unclear how the Court will rule on similar cases in the future. We need to make sure that we as Christians understand the importance of religious freedom, particularly as it applies to our work and serving others in the public square, and, like Jack Phillips, stand prepared to defend it.


Editor’s note: Learn more about the three pillars of freedom: religious, economic, and political in Free Indeed: Living in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.

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