By Jonathon Van Maren
American Christians have just secured one of the most consequential legal victories for religious liberty in decades, and the first major victory since the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015: The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled for Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop in his long battle to remain true to his conscience. From USA Today:
A divided Supreme Court on Monday absolved a Colorado baker of discrimination for refusing to create a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The verdict criticized the state’s treatment of Jack Phillips’ religious objections to gay marriage, ruling that a civil rights commission was biased against him. As a result, the decision did not resolve whether other opponents of same-sex marriage, such as florists and photographers, can refuse commercial wedding services to gay couples.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the court’s 7-2 decision against the same-sex couple, departing from his long history of opinions in favor of gay rights dating back a generation. Included among them was the court’s 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. During oral argument in December, Kennedy and other conservative justices had expressed concern about the potential effect on other merchants with strong religious objections to same-sex marriage, from chefs to florists.
While the case does not specifically address conscientious objection as a whole, LGBT activists may think twice before attempting to destroy the lives of those who disagree with them due to the fact that Justice Kennedy obviously sees a social compromise in which the legality of gay marriage does not conflict with religious liberty and the conscience rights of Christians as essential. While the LGBT movement has long since moved past the convenient rhetoric of “live and let live” that they utilized so effectively in the battle for the redefinition of marriage, Kennedy obviously believed it. More:
The five-year-old legal battle between Phillips and customers Charlie Craig and David Mullins represented a test between the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and religion and laws in 22 states prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community. Phillips, 62, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, was fighting for the rights of “creative artists” to choose what they will sell. Craig, 37, and Mullins, 33, were fighting for the rights of LGBT customers to choose what they will buy.
One clarifying remark: As many commentators pointed out, this was not simply about two gay men fighting for the right to buy what they liked. This was about people being able to force an artist to create art that conflicted with his or her values—as many pointed out, would a gay baker be forced to create a beautiful cake celebrating, say, Bermuda’s repeal of same-sex marriage? Of course not.
Craig and Mullins won before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the state Court of Appeals, thanks to the state’s inclusion of sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination law. Twenty-one other states have similar laws. But the Supreme Court, bolstered last April by the addition of stalwart conservative and fellow Coloradan Neil Gorsuch, represented a tougher test.
The high court had weighed in twice before on the subject of same-sex marriage. In 2013, it ruled that the federal government must recognize gay and lesbian marriages in the 12 states that had legalized them. In 2015, it extended same-sex marriage nationwide.
But even as he authored the court’s landmark decision, Kennedy held out an olive branch to religious conservatives. “It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned,” Kennedy wrote in 2015.
This victory was an essential one. To have lost this case would have been to encourage the prosecution of Christians that chose to follow their conscience right across the United States. Instead, the Court has chosen to affirm, albeit in a limited way, the religious liberty that Kennedy promised in his 2015 decision to redefine marriage. And it is certainly a major setback for the LGBT activists who are so determined to destroy dissenters like Jack Phillips.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.