The Masterpiece Cakeshop case is a victory for tolerance

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court issued perhaps its most important opinion of this term in a case called Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The ruling struck a blow for tolerance in America.

That last sentence will come as a surprise to my liberal friends.

A little background if you haven’t heard of the case: In Masterpiece, the plaintiff was Jack Phillips, an expert cake baker and devout Christian. For years Jack ran his store, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and made elaborate, beautiful cakes for weddings and other special occasions. His cakes are works of art. If you don’t believe me, visit his website, masterpiececakes.com, to see for yourself.

In 2012, two gay customers entered Jack’s store and asked Jack to design and bake a cake for their same-sex wedding. Jack said he would gladly bake a cake for the two of them for any other reason, but his religious convictions prevented him from baking a cake for a gay wedding. The couple then filed a discrimination complaint against Jack, claiming he violated a Colorado law which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. Jack showed that he had happily served gay customers before, and that he did not refuse to serve people based on their sexual orientation, but instead simply refused to participate in a ceremony that conflicted with his faith.

The State of Colorado found Jack in violation of the statute. During the hearing on the matter, Colorado officials compared Jack’s arguments to arguments for slavery and the Holocaust. The government ruled Jack had to reverse his store’s policy, and store employees had to undergo reeducation about the harm they had allegedly caused.

Jack decided he would not be steamrolled, though. He took the matter to court, arguing that Colorado had taken away his First Amendment rights. He endured years of public criticism for standing up for himself and his store. His case eventually wound its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Jack’s favor, 7 to 2.

The Court said Colorado acted in a hostile way during Jack’s hearing. They said Colorado was inconsistent, too. Colorado allowed gay cake bakers, for instance, to deny service to customers who wanted a message on a cake that was hostile to same-sex marriage. But when it came to Jack, Colorado insisted that he make cakes for gay weddings.

The Court made the right call when it ruled in Jack’s favor. The Court prevented a world where a black wedding photographer could be forced to take photos at the wedding of a white supremacist, or a Jewish cake baker could be forced to work for an anti-Semite. Artists shouldn’t be forced to speak messages that conflict with their views.

The case has a long list of other consequences, too, and some of them are local. Mississippi passed a bill not long ago called HB 1523, which protects the religious liberty rights of Mississippians who oppose same-sex marriage. HB 1523 already led to one lawsuit, which was thrown out, and I predict it will generate more litigation. While the Court in Masterpiece did not speak directly to a statute like ours, its statement that “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views” could help the state defend HB 1523.

The far more important consequence, though, is the signal this ruling sends to society. To be sure, Masterpiece involves an emotional issue for many. America is still a nation divided on the question of gay marriage. I have many close friends and even family who disagree with my views on the matter. Those disagreements have taken on an ugly form in the last few years. People of faith who have a particular understanding of marriage are called bigots and publicly shamed.

This volatile disagreement is just as much a product of a cultural divide as it is an ideological one. People feel that entertainers, media personalities, giant corporations (Bud Light even tells me to believe in gay marriage now), and others located in a few, elite zip codes enforce a code of beliefs, and if you violate the code on this issue, you may as well be a defender of Jim Crow. In short, people feel bulldozed over what they believe.

It can be hard to be a person of faith in such an environment. We must show others that a person can believe in traditional marriage and also believe all human beings have dignity and worth. But if you cannot convince them of that, you have to be willing to fight for your views.

For those of us willing to fight, we found help from an unexpected source this week: nine lawyers in robes in Washington, DC.

This column appeared in the Clarion Ledger on June 12, 2018.