The Supreme Court’s notable summer term is over and with the upcoming confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavenaugh to replace Justice Kennedy, the high court’s future is now front and center.
While a number of important decisions were handed down in the last few weeks, none was more consequential than the opinion in Masterpiece v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
Indeed, the case was about far more than wedding cakes and gay marriage. In fact, it cut to the core on matters of free expression, symbolic speech and the sanctity of religious liberty.
It wasn’t the first time the high court was faced with upholding religious liberty and once again they did. This is good news.
As you may recall, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the justices declared that religious conscience gets the benefit of the doubt as long as those beliefs do not pose a “substantial burden” on the parties. That case struck down an Obamacare mandate forcing an owner of a closely held corporation to provide coverage for contraceptives which he had opposed due to ‘sincerely held’ religious beliefs.
The Masterpiece case, while narrow, was even more direct. The question in front of the court was whether a Colorado businessman should be compelled to “use his artistic skills to make an expressive statement, a wedding endorsement of his own voice and of his own creation.”
But forcing a baker to design and create a cake at odds with his Christian beliefs is clearly a violation of the free exercise of religion, as the court correctly ruled. Moreover, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was so overtly hostile to the owner’s religious views that it’s almost a surprise the Court’s 7-2 ruling wasn’t unanimous.
To wit, one commissioner hearing the case actually said, “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.”
This reasoning is as absurd as it is offensive. Suggesting people in America who have sincerely held religious beliefs are using them to discriminate based on ethnicity amounts to pure demagoguery. They couldn’t if they tried—if for no other reason than the longstanding constitutional prohibitions on racial classifications going back to ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.
While states may add further protections to other classes, including gay couples, they may not do so at the expense of the First Amendment—which like the Fourteenth has been equally applicable to state and local government since the turn of the last century.
The plaintiff in the case, Jack Phillips, was willing to sell the couple anything else in his shop, but genuinely believed his philosophical objections to gay marriage (and divorce) were protected forms of expression.
“For the reasons just described,” as the Masterpiece majority explained, “the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the State’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint.”
I believe the proper relationship between church and state ought to be simple: a particular religion should never become the policy of state and the state must never interfere with the free exercise of religion. In this case it surely did, forcing Mr. Phillips to close his business or violate his conscience.
No matter one’s views on the underlying issue, everyone should celebrate the high court’s rulings in Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece which stood up for the First Amendment and religious expression.
Jason Lewis represents Minnesota’s 2nd district in the US House of Representatives.