A soon-to-be landmark case is currently pending in the Supreme Court. This case will set a crucial precedent on whether or not religious liberty and freedom of expression allow private businesses to deny service to someone or something that goes against your own beliefs.
The case in question is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Back in 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple with legal plans to marry, walked into Masterpiece Cake Shop in Lakewood, Colorado and asked for a custom cake for their wedding. The owner, Jack Phillips said that he could not create a custom cake for something that goes against his religious and moral convictions. He did, however, tell them that they are welcome in his business and that they can purchase anything else. But, he refused to make a custom cake for a same-sex wedding.
The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the lower courts ruling in favor of the couple. The Supreme Court has decided to hear this case, and oral arguments began on December 5th, with a decision expected some time around June 2018.
The oral arguments went as expected. The liberal-leaning justices expressed concerns regarding discrimination and public accommodation laws. One of their biggest concerns is where to draw this imaginary line in the sand. What counts as protected artistic expression? Which businesses and business owners are exempt if the court were to create this exception and rule in favor of Phillips? A chef, a hair-stylist, make-up artist, and a jeweler were just a few examples listed.
Some of the more conservative justices questioned whether ruling in favor of the couple does indeed violate Phillips’ First Amendment rights. Justice Kennedy, who will likely be the pivotal vote for the case said:
Tolerance is essential in a free society…And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual. It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.
He was responding to this commission from one of the lower appellate courts:
Religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust…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.
This case, like most cases of constitutional law, is complex. On one hand, no person in a free society should have to fear whether or not they will be legally denied service or be allowed to take part in a mutual transaction. Will a ruling in favor of Phillips yield unintended consequences? It is very possible that such a ruling could give a green light to discrimination in the name of religious liberty.
On the other hand, is forced expression by the hand of the government really an indication of a free society? Is it truly a mutual transaction if one party is coerced by law? I certainly don’t think so. An important indication here is that the couple was not denied entry or service; they were only denied a custom-made cake, which they purchased at another bakery down the road. It is also worth noting that Phillips chooses not to make cakes for several things that he believes would violate his conscience. For example, he will not make cakes for Halloween, anything racist or lewd, anti-American sentiment, or divorce parties.
Masterpiece Cakeshop does not have an anti-gay agenda. Rather, they want to conduct their business in accord with their religious convictions. If the Supreme Court rules against Masterpiece Cakeshop, then the government will have precedent to force private business owners to create certain products. They will essentially declare all the goods and services of one person to be the “right” of another to take by force.
Finding the most lawful and moral outcome is going to be tricky. We must ask ourselves two questions.
- Do we want to be a society that allows businesses to deny their product or service to certain people of whom they disagree?
- Do we want to be a society that forces businesses to provide their goods and services against their will in the name of equality?
Either way, this could be a dangerous ruling. Both decisions could take us down a slippery slope of deteriorating freedom. The Supreme Court has a huge case in front of them, and the ruling will set a precedent and lay the landscape for the future of the First Amendment.