Christian Artist and Cakeshop Owner Wins Case At U.S. Supreme Court

"You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody."

— 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

By Catherine Park

The U.S. Supreme Court, 7-2, ruled in favor of the Christian artist and cakeshop owner, Jack Phillips, a Denver-based cake decorator, who respectfully turned away a same-sex couple seeking a custom-designed wedding cake, only to be falsely accused of discrimination. The case is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (U.S. Supreme Court, June 4, 2018).

A decision of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had found that the artist allegedly violated the state's anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed. Thankfully the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, ruling, instead, that the Civil Rights Commission itself had violated the artist's constitutional right to free exercise of his religious faith.

The artist had explained to the couple, "I'll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, cookies and brownies, I just don't make cakes for same-sex weddings." As with most devout Christians, the artist's "main goal in life is to be obedient to" Jesus Christ and Christ's "teachings in all aspects of his life …. [and] honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop."

There was no dispute that a same-sex marriage "directly goes against the teachings of the Bible," as the artist explained his sincerely held Christian beliefs. The evidence showed that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in public hearings, dismissed his religious faith as mere rhetoric, however ("one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use"). One commissioner told the artist he could believe "what he wants to believe," but could not act in accordance with his beliefs "if he wants to do business in the state." As the Supreme Court ruled:

To describe a man's faith as "one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use" is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere. The commissioner even went so far as to compare Phillips' evocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado's antidiscrimination law—a law that protects against discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.

The Supreme Court also found damaging the Commission's very different treatment of three cases in which cake decorators had refused, on conscience grounds, to create custom cakes disparaging same-sex marriage. (Customers in those instances had requested messages to be placed on cakes that the cake decorators deemed "offensive.") From the Supreme Court's opinion:

The Commission ruled against Phillips in part on the theory that any message the requested wedding cake would carry would be attributed to the customer, not to the baker. Yet the Division did not address this point in any of the other cases with respect to the cakes depicting anti-gay marriage symbolism. Additionally, the Division found no violation of [Colorado's Anti-Discrimination Act] in the other cases in part because each bakery was willing to sell the products, including those depicting Christian themes, to prospective customers. But the Commission dismissed Phillips' willingness to sell "birthday cakes, shower cakes, [and] cookies and brownies," App. 152, to gay and lesbian customers as irrelevant….

Before the Colorado Court of Appeals, Phillips protested that this disparity in treatment reflected hostility on the part of the Commission toward his beliefs. He argued that the Commission had treated the other bakers' conscience-based objections as legitimate, but treated his as illegitimate—thus sitting in judgment of his religious beliefs themselves.

The Supreme Court called out the Commission for making "normative" judgments, e.g., deciding what conduct is "offensive" or "orthodox":

A principled rationale for the difference in treatment of these two instances cannot be based on the government's own assessment of offensiveness. Just as "no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion," West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943), it is not, as the Court has repeatedly held, the role of the State or its officials to prescribe what shall be offensive. See Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S. ________, _______ (2017) (opinion of ALITO, J.) (slip op., at 22-23).

The Supreme Court affirmed the principle that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment requires neutrality in the treatment of religion:

"[G]overnment, if it is to respect the Constitution's guarantee of free exercise, cannot impose regulations that are hostile to the religious beliefs of affected citizens and cannot act in a manner that passes judgment upon or presupposes the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices. The Free Exercise Clause bars even 'subtle departures from neutrality' on matters of religion." Masterpiece Cakeshop, supra (quoting Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993)).

The Supreme Court disapproved of the Commission's hostility toward the artist's Christian faith:

The Commission gave "every appearance," Lukumi, supra, at 545, of adjudicating Phillips' religious objection based on a negative normative "evaluation of the particular justification" for his objection and the religious grounds for it. Id., at 537. It hardly requires restating that government has no role in deciding or even suggesting whether the religious ground for Phillips' conscience-based objection is legitimate or illegitimate. On these facts, the Court must draw the inference that Phillips' religious objection was not considered with the neutrality that the Free Exercise Clause requires.

The public hearings during which the Commissioners sought to punish the artist's refusal to surrender his religious beliefs and endorse gay marriages occurred in 2012, and was probably highly politicized. Just a few years later, such a highly politicized attack by government officials against a Christian artist and business owner in the attempt to exert control of those similarly situated is quashed with the Supreme Court's Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. The attempt by the Commissioners to force Christians to change their religious doctrine to accommodate the personal beliefs of the Commissioners themselves—as the Supreme Court's decision emphasized—violates the Free Exercise Clause.

The attack against Biblical belief in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is predicated upon a threat—"convert or surrender your livelihood." As Jesus explained, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." Gospel of John 10:10.

Everyone must be permitted to "mind [their] own business and work with [their] hands …." 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12. Because of his sincerely held Christian beliefs—which governmental decision makers happened to disagree with—the artist was deprived of his livelihood. In reversing the injustice, Masterpiece Cakeshop is a landmark decision for people of faith, and, needless to say—good news!