Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in America. The state of Colorado, however, displayed that sort of anti-religious bigotry in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Supreme Court finally weighed in, and its decision forbids the state from bullying people whose faiths teach them that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.
The facts of this case are by now well known. My client, Jack Phillips, is a cake artist and owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. He serves all who walk through his doors but will not design cakes that celebrate events or convey messages in conflict with his religious beliefs. That includes his belief that marriage is the union of husband and wife.
In 2012, Phillips declined a request to create a wedding cake celebrating a same-sex marriage. But he was quick to tell the couple that he would design a cake for them for another occasion or sell them anything else in his store.
Instead of respecting Phillips’ beliefs about marriage, the state labeled those beliefs discriminatory. That disparaged not only him but also the millions of others – from faith traditions as diverse as Islam and Christianity – who hold the same belief.
One state official said that using religious freedom “to justify discrimination” is “a despicable piece of rhetoric,” comparing Phillips’ efforts to protect his freedom to arguments raised by slaveholders and Nazis. And the government ordered Phillips to teach his employees, which consist of his family members, that he was wrong to operate his business consistently with his convictions.
Such harsh treatment of beliefs fundamental to Phillips’s religious identity demeans his existence as a man of faith. It sends the unmistakable message that his religion is not welcome in public – that he must hide who he truly is and what he deeply believes.
But the state didn’t stop there. It forced Phillips to either create wedding cakes that celebrate same-sex marriages in violation of his faith or completely give up his work as a designer of wedding cakes. In essence, the government demanded that he choose between two of his core identities: Christian and wedding-cake artist.
The state put the same choice to countless other creative professionals who celebrate marriages – be they filmmakers, photographers or musicians – and who follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. For them, the decision is painful: Either turn their back on their faith or forfeit their livelihood.
During the case, the government ignored this harm to these people of faith, focusing exclusively on the interests of same-sex couples. Yet the state’s concern for those couples cannot justify what it has done.
After all, dignitary concerns lie on both sides of the case. Few things are more degrading – and stigmatizing – to people of faith than having their state brand their beliefs unfit for public life.
When the government does that, it fosters incivility toward those people. Phillips endured his share of that. From harsh insults laced with unrepeatable language to terrifying death threats, he has suffered greatly as he has watched his fellow citizens follow the lead of a government turned against him.
It’s simply not true, then, that the state protected dignity by punishing him. All it did was focus the dignitary harm on him and his fellow believers.
The injuries experienced by Phillips and other creative professionals also take tangible form. He was forced to end his career as a wedding-cake artist – to give up that work and abandon skills he spent decades developing. That cost him 40 percent of his income and most of his employees. Such professional and financial losses are overwhelming.
The Supreme Court’s ruling said that “the outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts.” Some interpret this to mean that the decision benefits only Phillips. That reads the ruling too narrowly. The court was deeply troubled by the fact that the state had punished cake artists who declined to celebrate same-sex marriage but had exonerated those who refused requests to criticize same-sex marriage. Most government officials presented with similar circumstances will interpret their nondiscrimination laws the same way; this means that many other artists who share Phillips’ religious beliefs about marriage will benefit from the court’s decision.
Also, while the state’s treatment of Phillips was egregious, in some ways, he didn’t have it as bad as others. Barronelle Stutzman, another client of mine, is a floral artist in Washington state who has been sued in her personal capacity and stands to lose everything she owns, barring relief from the Supreme Court. Others – including filmmakers in Minnesota and artists in Arizona – face jail time if they decline requests to celebrate same-sex marriages. The costs of living by their conscience are steeper than most realize.
We as a culture would do well to cultivate tolerance for good-faith differences of opinion on same-sex marriage. Colorado is particularly in need of that. As the Supreme Court observed in its opinion, the state was “neither tolerant nor respectful of Phillips’ religious beliefs.”
The court’s decision announced that the government was wrong to punish Phillips for living according to his beliefs about marriage. Those beliefs must be respected. Let’s hope government officials throughout the country get that message.
Kristen Waggoner, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, argued on behalf of Jack Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop in their case before the Supreme Court.
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