Jack Philips, a Denver baker who declined to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding, got some good news today from the United State’s Supreme Court when they ruled that the state of Colorado violated the Constitution in the way they treated him.
The case arose out of a familiar set of facts. Six years ago, Jack Phillips was approached about making a cake for a same-sex “wedding” at a time when same-sex marriage didn’t even exist in Colorado. He declined, citing his beliefs about marriage and emphasized that he serves all people, but he does not participate in all events or communicate all messages. Unfortunately, his kindness in standing on his conviction was not satisfactory.
After a complaint was filed with the Colorado Human Right’s Commission, the commission, among other things, told Jack he could not bake any wedding cakes at all and sent his employees (most of them, family) to government re-education programs that told them why Jack was wrong to do what he did.
In reaching their decision, the Supreme Court highlighted the hostility the commission showed toward Mr. Philips and his beliefs, saying that the commission failed their constitutional obligation to religious neutrality.
While there’s certain to be a lot of chatter about this case for quite a while, here are a few things worth remembering.
- Jack won: In many circles, the conversation about this decision immediately focused on what the decision didn’t do. But let’s not forget the outcome in all the speculation. Jack won! For all the real challenges we are facing, and all the real threats to religious freedom, a supermajority of the Supreme Court stood for the proposition that America still aspires to be a pluralistic society where people are free to have different ideas without being punished by their government. This is good news and we should celebrate it.
- The left’s goal of “Punishing the Wicked” is unconstitutional: After the Supreme Court invented a right to marry someone of the same gender in 2015, many on the left interpreted it to mean that they had triumphed. They convinced themselves that the decision established, once and for all, the idea that homosexuality and heterosexuality are morally equivalent in all respects and that any suggestion otherwise was bigotry. As a result, they spoke openly about the need to “punish the wicked” (that’s all of us) and use the leverage of government at every level to do so. In today’s decision, the court emphasized that people on both sides of the debate over marriage have rights and dignity interests that governments at all level are obligated to respect.
- It wasn’t a narrow decision: While many headlines discussing this case emphasized on how “narrow” the decision was, those headlines were an attempt to minimize the significance of the 7-2 decision. When justices Kagan, Kennedy, and Gorsuch come together on an opinion, it’s not narrow. The idea that government should be able to harass “religious bigots” however they want is mainstream in the progressive circles that drive the left’s political agenda. The fact that mainstream progressives are now too extreme for Breyer and Kagan is all you need to know about how far left the left has gone.
- We still don’t know if custom cake art is constitutionally protected speech. The majority opinion in this case essentially boils down to this. “There are a lot of fascinating legal questions this case raises that we don’t have to answer because the Human Rights Commission in Colorado is run by a bunch of bullies.” As a result, the Court never decided the more fundamental question of whether forcing someone to do custom cake art for a same-sex wedding violates the Free Speech of the cake artist. This question has implications far beyond bakeries. Here in Washington State, Barronelle Stutzman and Arlene’s Flowers are asking the same question about custom floral arrangements. In similar cases, calligraphers, videographers, and t-shirt printers are still wondering whether governments can force them to communicate ideas they disagree with. Based on the concurring decisions, we know that Thomas and Gorsuch are eager to say that expressive art like custom cakes is constitutionally protected speech and that Sotomayor and Ginsberg are keen to say that it is not. How do the other five Justices feel? We’ll have to wait and see.
- There are no losers in this decision. While the bullies at the Colorado Human Right’s Commission lost this case in a legal sense, the outcome is a win for everyone who values individual rights. Even if we don’t share Jack Phillips convictions about what marriage is, there are other issues that we have equally strong beliefs about. If Jack is free to decide for himself what events he participates in and what messages he communicates, then so is everyone else. This means that the Democrat baker won’t have to create the #MAGA cake if he doesn’t want to or the lesbian print shop won’t have to create a flyer critical of same-sex “marriage” for a fundamentalist customer if she doesn’t want to. Yes, freedom creates opportunities for people to do things we don’t like, but its a lot better than the alternative.
Special thanks to our friends at the Alliance Defending Freedom, who represent people like Jack Phillips for free and defend the religious freedom rights of all of us, as well as Washington’s own Kristen Waggoner who argued Jack’s case on his behalf at the United States Supreme Court and secured today’s victory.
But under no circumstances should anyone get comfortable. Today’s decision is a good step in the right direction, but the struggle to preserve religious freedom for generations to come is just getting started.