The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission this term. The case may have a huge impact on the meaning of religious freedom in the United States.
To give some background: A Colorado state court said that a suburban Denver bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop, violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law – which bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – by refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding reception, and that neither the bakery nor its owner had a religious freedom right to violate the law. Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief with that court, arguing that religious freedom is not an excuse to discriminate against others. The baker, Jack Phillips, appealed, and the high court agreed to hear his case.
Here at Americans United, we believe that religious freedom is about fairness, and it’s certainly not fair for a business to use religion as an excuse to turn away an entire class of people who want to purchase the goods sold there.
The other side also knows that this case could be a landmark ruling – but, not surprisingly, its spin is quite different.
Recently, OneNewsNow, a site run by the American Family Association (AFA), wrote about the importance of the case from its perspective, putting forth the argument that right-wing Christians are really the victims here. As the AFA tells it, anti-gay fundamentalists are being targeted because they’re not legally allowed to use religion as an excuse to discriminate.
“We've seen over a dozen examples specifically of Christian business owners who are being driven out of business by various commissions and bureaucrats because of their religious beliefs,” AFA president Tim Wildmon said. “And this case could be a turning point at the Supreme Court for religious liberty and frankly for the First Amendment rights of people of faith.”
Religious freedom is about fairness, not discrimination.
But requiring the bakery to follow the law did not violate Phillips’ religious freedom or free-speech rights. Phillips remains free to worship as he sees fit, and he can freely express his views on marriage equality. What he cannot do, under Colorado law, is deny services to people based on who they are. That is discrimination, pure and simple.
The Religious Right is pleased because the Trump administration has sided with the bakery. The U.S. Department of Justice told the Supreme Court in a friend-of-the-court brief that Phillips’ free speech is somehow at risk.
It isn’t. By no conceivable stretch can baking a cake be seen as an expression of free speech. As AU noted in our brief, “Antidiscrimination statutes like Colorado’s do not burden or restrain business owners’ symbolic speech. Neither the act of accepting or turning away customers, nor furnishing baked goods and other similar products to customers, is the kind of activity deemed worthy of symbolic-speech protection under existing First Amendment doctrine.”
A recent SCOTUS Blog post by Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also summed up the importance of Masterpiece for religious freedom.
“Set against this line of cases, the question in Masterpiece Cakeshop is whether we recognize this human dignity, or instead grant companies sweeping license to discriminate against millions of our LGBT neighbors and family members on the basis of personal religious conviction,” Gupta wrote.
We agree, and the majority of Americans agree, too. According to a new Public Religion Research Institute poll released today, 53 percent of Americans oppose allowing wedding vendors to refuse service to same-sex couples in the name of religion. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. For many, finding a partner and getting married are also fundamental parts of the American dream. Our country can and should deliver both. And that’s why Americans United will be filing a brief in this case in support of the couple who faced discrimination.
We hope the Supreme Court will reach the same conclusion in Masterpiece as the lower courts: A business cannot use religion as an excuse to discriminate. Check out our Protect Thy Neighbor project for more on our work to fight the use of religion to discriminate and harm others.