Supreme Court sides with baker on narrow legal grounds

  • 4 June 2018
  • NormanL
A broad victory on a narrow point of process

The Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker who refused to create a custom wedding cake same sex couple as the baker said doing os would violate his religious beliefs. But there's more to this ruling than the headline.

Yes, the Court sided with the baker 7-2. But the ruling was on a narrow point of law, and that has sown lots of confusion. Via the SCOTUSblog, we get this analysis of the case:

Although Phillips prevailed today, the opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy rested largely on the majority’s conclusion that the Colorado administrative agency that ruled against Phillips treated him unfairly by being too hostile to his sincere religious beliefs. The opinion seemed to leave open the possibility that, in a future case, a service provider’s sincere religious beliefs might have to yield to the state’s interest in protecting the rights of same-sex couples, and the majority did not rule at all on one of the central arguments in the case – whether compelling Phillips to bake a cake for a same-sex couple would violate his right to freedom of speech.

And that's the key takeaway. No sweeping victory for religious freedom, as some have claimed. But a narrow win on process, and more specifically, on the attitude displayed by the Colorado authorities who initially forced Phillips to bake the cake:

...the critical question of when and how Phillips’ right to exercise his religion can be limited had to be determined, Kennedy emphasized, in a proceeding that was not tainted by hostility to religion. Here, Kennedy observed, the “neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised” by comments by members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. At one hearing, Kennedy stressed, commissioners repeatedly “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.” And at a later meeting, Kennedy pointed out, one 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,” Kennedy admonished, “is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.” Moreover, Kennedy added, the commission’s treatment of Phillips’ religious objections was at odds with its rulings in the cases of bakers who refused to create cakes “with images that conveyed disapproval of same-sex marriage.”

Short version: sneering contempt from an oversight body toward one party in a dispute is unacceptable. That's just common sense. 

In a separate opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, we get this:

“Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise” of his religion, Thomas concluded, “it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day.”