This past Monday, SCOTUS issued its ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, ruling 7-2 in favor of baker Jack Phillips against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Their ruling was based on the premise that the Civil Rights Commission did not show sufficient deference to the baker’s deeply held religious beliefs. They got it wrong. Way wrong.
The facts in the case are pretty straightforward. A gay couple wanted to avail themselves of their legal right to marry and wanted to make it a special day. So among the other arrangements that they wanted to make to mark their special day, was to order a wedding cake from what was reputed to be the premier wedding cake bakery in the area. The owner of the bake shop refused to provide them with a wedding cake because they were a gay couple. The couple filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission claiming discrimination and the Commission subsequently ruled in their favor. The baker, Phillips, sued the Civil Rights Commission on 1st Amendment grounds claiming that being forced to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple violated his deeply held religious beliefs that gay marriage is wrong.
But the Commission did not deny him the right to believe what he wanted. Colorado has a public accommodations law that ensures equal access to all legal services offered by a vendor for every member of the public. They merely said that he was not permitted to weaponize his religious beliefs and use it as justification to discriminate against the rights of others by refusing to provide equal service to those who do not hold those same beliefs.
SCOTUS ruled that the Commission was hostile to the baker’s religious beliefs and that was a violation of his 1st Amendment rights. But there is nothing in the 1st Amendment about being able to use religious belief as justification to harm other people. As the saying goes, “your right to swing your fist wildly about ends where another man’s nose begins”. And that fully applies in this case. The baker has the right to believe whatever sort of bigoted nonsense that he wishes, but he does not have the right to use those beliefs to inflict harm or emotional distress on other people. What if he were a white supremacist with a deeply held religious belief against miscegenation? According to this ruling, he could deny service to a mixed race couple. Or an African-American couple.
The bigger problem here is that, just as in the Hobby Lobby case, they are sending the message that we must always show not just deference, but preference to religion – or at least approved religion(s). And that is directly contrary to the 1st Amendment because they are, in practice, establishing a hierarchy of approved religious beliefs, if not approved religions. And by codifying undue deference to those religious beliefs, they are creating a situation that is fertile ground for establishing a theocracy. In part two, I will explore just why deference to religious belief at any level is harmful to society.