A First Step for the First Freedom: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

300px-supreme_court_front_duskThe Supreme Court of the United States released its decision on the highly anticipated Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case on June 4. In a 7-2 decision, the high court sided with Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, noting that his First Amendment right to freedom of religious exercise was violated.

While the split among the justices was a wide margin of 7-2, the opinion of the Court is being described as a narrow due to the scope of the decision. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted:

Phillips was entitled to the neutral and respectful consideration of his claims in all the circumstances of the case. . . . The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here, however. The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.

In essence, commissioners on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission expressed animus regarding the religious beliefs of Jack Phillips and were unable to adjudicate the merits of his claim due to such animus. Thus, Phillips’ rights were violated because his deeply held religious beliefs were judged unfairly by the commission.

Kennedy also noted that the commission had treated other similar cases differently. On three separate occasions, the commission ruled in favor of bakers who refused to produce cakes with messages that disapproved of same-sex marriage while also bearing religious texts. The commission allowed those bakers to refuse service but still compelled Phillips to produce cakes in support of same-sex marriage.

Kennedy concludes his opinion by emphasizing the narrow scope of the opinion. He writes:

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 ruling of the Commission and of the state court that enforced the Commission’s order must be invalidated.

What does this Supreme Court decision mean for religious liberty? On one hand, it is a victory for Jack Phillips and others whose religious liberty has been violated because government officials disagreed with their religious beliefs. On the other hand, this case does not set a clear precedent moving forward for religious liberty on a wider scale.

Those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds have increasingly found themselves on the outside looking in. The general attitude toward same-sex marriage in the United States has rapidly become more favorable since the Obergefell decision in 2015. As a result, it is likely that many business owners who refuse to promote same-sex marriage with their goods and services will face similar ridicule and animosity on the part of those adjudicating their cases in the courts. In such circumstances, this case sets a helpful precedent because religious beliefs must be considered with neutrality in the courts and commissions. Thus, anyone who faces such animosity can immediately use this Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion to find remedy.

What this case does not do is set a precedent for all business owners to refuse service in matters of same-sex marriage. Kennedy notes this limitation in his opinion, and Justice Thomas makes it even clearer. Thomas writes:

In Obergefell, I warned that the Court’s decision would “inevitabl[y] . . . come into conflict” with religious liberty, “as individuals . . . are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” This case proves that the conflict has already emerged. Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day. But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to “stamp out every vestige of dissent” and “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” If that freedom is to maintain its vitality, reasoning like the Colorado Court of Appeals’ must be rejected.

This case gives a temporary and limited victory to proponents of traditional marriage. For the time being, the “new orthodoxy” of same-sex marriage has not overrun those who believe that God created marriage to be a union between one man and one woman. However, this case does not give blanket protection in the future. It is a first step in the protection of our first freedom in the United States, but further steps are still necessary.

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Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018). Full text of the opinion is available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-111_new_d1of.pdf.

Radio Interview about First Freedom

knowingthetruth-kevinbolingToday I had the privilege to join Kevin Boling on his radio program “Knowing the Truth” out of the Greenville, SC area. I have known Kevin for several years now and have been honored to join him on his show a few times.

In this interview, we discussed the new edition of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty. I contributed a chapter to that volume entitled, “Religious Liberty and the Gospel.”

Over the course of our discussion we covered some of the biblical context for religious liberty, the connection between America and the ancient Roman Empire, and implications of religious liberty for all religions.

You can listen to the interview here. You can purchase a copy of the book on Amazon or other book retailers (as of Oct 17, the first print run of the book sold out, but the publisher assures us that more copies will be available sooner than Amazon currently reports).

Religious Liberty and the Gospel

91cer-paj4lReligious liberty has become a major topic of discussion in this current political cycle. There are worries about presidential candidates or potential Supreme Court justices who may scale back the freedoms that have been enjoyed by Americans for more than two centuries. However, not everyone understands the full extent to which religious liberty should be applied.

Many people consider religious liberty to mean the freedom to worship at whichever house of worship you choose. However, the free exercise of religion extends to all aspects of life, especially the right to share your beliefs with others. In the second edition of First Freedom (which becomes available on Oct 15), I write:

With the First Amendment’s promise that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” adherents to all faiths were guaranteed the right to the free exercise of religion. As a result, religious groups were free to take to the highways and byways to proclaim what they believed. The right to religious liberty ensured that Christians and others would have the freedom to gather for worship, change their religious beliefs, and proselytize. However, such freedom is a delicate balance. No one religious tradition can be privileged over another. The predominant religion of one generation may be the minority in the next.

The religious liberty we enjoy today is much like the unique features of the Roman Empire that aided the spread of the gospel in the first century. The network of roads between major commercial cities, the common Greek language spoken throughout the empire, and the relative peace brought by Roman military dominance assisted the early believers in taking the message of Christ throughout the empire.

Today’s political landscape is vastly different from first century Rome, but the religious nature of society is similar. We live in a syncretistic culture where people pick and choose what they want to believe. While this may seem like a detriment to the overall religious health of our American culture, it can also serve as an aid in sharing the gospel. Christianity should not be privileged in an environment of religious liberty, but I believe it can win the day in the marketplace of ideas when we take the opportunity to proclaim its truth.

In the closing paragraphs of my chapter in First Freedom, I note:

Religious liberty does not give Christianity a privileged position in the culture. In theory this freedom puts all religions (or even the lack of religion) on equal footing. Consider this for a moment. The next time Mormon missionaries knock on your door and try to convince you that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the restoration of the true church and that you need to be baptized in their church in order to enjoy the benefits of salvation, remember that they are exercising religious liberty. The next time that the Muslim community decides to build a mosque in your neighborhood (or even next door to your church), remember they are exercising religious liberty. Since religious liberty guarantees us the right to exercise our faith freely, the government cannot coerce what we believe to be false religions to give up their beliefs or plans for worship. Thus, religious liberty ought to motivate us to share the gospel. In a country where religious liberty is currently protected, we should take advantage of this freedom and reason with others, persuading them to hear and receive the gospel.

This is the unique connection between religious liberty and the gospel. May we not take for granted our liberty and fail to share the truth with a lost and dying world.

If you want to read more about religious liberty, let me encourage you to pick up a copy of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty from Amazon or any other book retailer starting October 15. To see more about the book and contributors, visit the page of one of the editors, Jason G. Duesing.