Legislative Update

Masterpiece Cakeshop: What does it mean?

By Tom Venzor  

Bishop Conley recently wrote about Jack Phillips and Jack’s legal case—Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission—that was decided June 4 by the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”). Bishop Conley recognized that “[l]egal scholars have already begun debating the consequences of the Supreme Court decision[.]” Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of interpretations of Masterpiece Cakeshop and the future of religious freedom, freedom of speech, marriage, and gay rights. The hope here is to summarize some of these interpretations.

Summary of Masterpiece Cakeshop. In 2012, Jack Phillips—owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado—was approached by two men (Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins) who asked Jack to create a wedding cake for their same-sex wedding ceremony. Jack declined, based on his sincerely held religious belief about marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. Jack refused to apply his artistic talents as a custom-cake designer for Craig and Mullins.

Craig and Mullins filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, claiming that Jack violated Colorado state law which prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodations against a person based on, among other categories, sexual orientation. Craig and Mullins’ claim was deemed as meritorious by several adjudicatory bodies. Jack then appealed SCOTUS.

SCOTUS considered two key issues: Whether Colorado’s public accommodations law that compels a cakemaker to create and design a cake that violates the baker’s sincerely held religious beliefs about same-sex marriage violates either 1) the Free Speech Clause or 2) the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Ultimately, SCOTUS “punted” on Jack’s free speech issue. “Court watchers” were expecting the Supreme Court to address whether making and designing custom-made cakes constitutes creative expression and, thereby, speech.

SCOTUS did rule in Jack’s favor on the Free Exercise Clause claim. The Supreme Court found two critical components of government hostility and animus toward Jack’s religious beliefs. They found these to be impermissible government action and a violation of Jack’s free exercise of religion.

First, the Supreme Court denounced comments of Colorado Civil Rights Commissioners which denigrated the religious beliefs of Jack. They claimed Jack’s beliefs were akin to biblical defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. Second, the Supreme Court criticized the disparate treatment between Jack’s case and the cases of several other bakers who refused to bake a cake with anti-same-sex marriage messages. With the latter, Civil Rights Commission claimed that the bakers were not engaged in discrimination based on the customer’s religious views, but were offended by the customer’s message.

Various Views of Masterpiece. As with so many other things in law and politics, the interpretations vary among the experts and scholars.

Some believe the case has little to no value. For example, Andrew McCarthy of National Review has argued that the Court has instructed future government decisionmakers to simply be nice to religious believers: “In the next case, just patiently hear out the baker, politely rule against him, and move on—no more grandstanding about how much religion sucks.”

Professor Hadley Arkes of Amherst College has echoed the same thoughts: “For years it was understood that the law need not be at all ‘neutral’ between religion and irreligion, that there were compelling reasons, for the public good, to encourage religious life. But now the claim is reduced simply to an obligation not to be indecorously nasty while the law refuses to respect religious convictions.”

As Professor Darel Paul of Williams College has stated: Masterpiece Cakeshop is a “harbinger of defeat” for future religious liberty claims. If the government does not show open hostility to you, you will have no religious liberty claim against the state.

Others believe the case has reinvigorated Free Exercise Clause law and will provide substantial protection to future religious liberty cases. For example, David French of National Review has claimed that civil rights commissions are generally ideological and hackish, and it will take little work to show evidence of hostility toward religious believers, especially those who hold a traditional view of marriage. Dr. John Eastman of the Claremont Institute has rigorously defended Masterpiece Cakeshop as resurrecting the Free Exercise Clause. Dr. Eastman argues that the Court in Masterpiece applies a high-level scrutiny to a law that is neutral and generally applicable and not intended to target religion, something which SCOTUS has not done in nearly 30 years—and they did so “because of how the law was applied to religious objectors.”

Regardless of how any future cases turn out, religious liberty has lived to fight another day because of the victory in Masterpiece Cakeshop. As always, defending religious liberty requires extreme amounts of vigilance and the work of vigilance is the work of each one of us. St. Thomas More, pray for us!



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