The Supreme Court issued a 7-2 ruling this morning in favor of the baker in tbe same-sex wedding cake case. The Court’s ruling is narrow but essentially says that the arguments of both sides needed to be treated with respect and neutrality and that the Colorado commission had failed treat Phillips’ beliefs with respect.
This decision affirms Obergefell but sends a signal that both sides need to take each others’ rights seriously and try to reach accommodation. It leaves other discussion as to what constitutes free speech or expression, and even how to address similar cases of a conflict between free exercise of religion and non-discrimination laws for another day.
The Court focused on the State Commission’s apparent hostility toward Phillips (from the summary of the ruling):
“As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. No commissioners objected to the comments. Nor were they mentioned in the later state-court ruling or disavowed in the briefs filed here. The comments thus cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case.”
The commissioner’s actual statement is included in the text of the decision:
“I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. 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.” Tr. 11–12.
The question as to whether this was describing his specific religious beliefs, or a general species of beliefs remains a matter of debate, but in the view of the majority, this statement was enough to indicate that the commission was not neutral toward religion.
The Court thus avoided an uncomfortable discussion of the how much free speech and free exercise of religion Phillips has, and if Phillips were to once again make wedding cakes and again refused on religious grounds, the case could conceivably end up with the Colorado Commission who could then avoid the problematic language and still issue a new ruling against him.
The full ruling is available here: