It’s Not Freedom if You Can’t Exercise It, Pt 3   Leave a comment

“When the government fails to act neutrally toward the free exercise of religion, it tends to run into trouble.” Neil Gorsuch, Supreme Court justice

Gorsuch wrote a concuring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Justice Alito joined him.

Image result for image of wedding cakeGorsuch stated that the decision hinged on the hostility of the Commission toward Phillips’ beliefs and on their failure to show that their “restriction on religion both serve(s) a compelling interest and (is) narrowly tailored” (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v Hialeah (1993)).

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to “act neutrally toward Jack Phillips’ religious faith.” It allowed three other bakers to refuse a customer’s request that would have required them to violate their secular commitments, “yet it denied the same accommodations to Mr. Phillips when he refused a customer’s request that would have required him to violate his religious beliefs.” The Commission’s reasoning was the Phillips’ religious beliefs are “offensive”, in its judgement.

Gorsuch admits that he wrote this opinion mainly to address his two colleagues trying to suggest that the Commission could have acted neutrally toward Phillips’ faith when it treated him differently from the other bakers in a way consistent with the First Amendment.

“Respectfully, I do not see how we might rescue the Commission from its error.”

Mr. Jack argued that the cakes he requested reflected his religious beliefs and so the bakers could not refuse to make them just because they disagreed with his beliefs. The Commission ruled that the bakers didn’t refuse on the basis of his religious faith, but because his message was “offensive” to their own moral convictions.

How is that different from what Jack Phillips did when he refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding? Phillips too offered to make other baked goods, including cakes, celebrating other occasions, but he would not design a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer. He subsequently refused the request from the mother of one of the partners. The undisputed factual record shows that Phillips would not make a cake celebrating a same-sex marriage for a heterosexual customer and that he was no unwilling to sell other products to a homosexual customer.

“In both cases, the effect on the customer was the same: bikers refused service to persons who bore a statutorily protected trait (religious faith or sexual orientation). But in both cases, the bakers refused service intending only to honor a personal conviction. … the bakers knew their conduct promised the effect of leaving a customer in a protected class unserved. But there’s no indication the bakers actually intended to refuse service because of a customer’s protected characteristic. … all bakers explained without contradiction that they would not sell the requested cakes to anyone, while they would sell other cakes to members of the protected class (as well as anyone else).”

Gorsuch notes that Colorado law allows that “businesses are entitled to reject orders for any number of reasons, including because they deem a particular product requested by a customer to be “offensive”.  The Commission ignored that and judged Mr. Phillips’ intentions in denying service were “inextricably tied to the sexual orientation of the parties involved” and essentially “irrational.” But, somehow, the intentions of bakers in the Jack case were not “inextricably linked”.  The Commission presumed Mr. Phillips habored an intent to discriminate against a protected class in light of the foreseeable effects of his conduct, but it didn’t presume the same intention toward the bakers’ conduct in the Jack’s case.

“The Commission cannot have it both ways. [It] cannot slide up and down the mens rea scale, picking a mental status standard that suit its tastes depending on its sympathies. Either actual proof of intent to discriminate on the basis of membership in a protected class is required … or it is sufficient to “presume” such intent from the knowing failure to serve someone in a protected class.”

But no, the Commission appeared instead to condemn Mr. Phillips for “expressing just the kind of “irrational” or “offensive” message that the bakers in the Jack’s case refused to endorse.  You can agree with the Commission and consider Mr. Phillips’ beliefs to be irrational or offensive, or consider that he has misinterpreted the teachings of his faith. The Supreme Court has ruled same-sex marriage is a matter of constitutional right and various states have enacted laws that preclude discrimination on the basis of sextual orientation, but those bureaucratic judgments do not survive strict scrutiny under the First Amendment.

“In this country, the place of secular officials isn’t to sit in judgment of religious beliefs, but only to protect their free exercise. … Just as it it is the proudest boast of our free exercise of jurisprudence that we protect speech that we hate, it must be the proudest boast of our free exercise jurisprudence that we protect religious beliefs that we find offensive (Matal v Tam (2017); United States v Schwimmer (1929).”

Gorsuch goes on to say the Commission has tried to maneuver around its failure by claiming Jack asked for a cake with text while Craig and Mullins (the plaintives) sought a decorated cake and then has insisted that the Phillips’ case involved a wedding cake like any other, suggesting there’s no substantive difference between a wedding cake celebrating a heterosexual wedding versus a homosexual one. It’s all a means to deny the neutrality Jack Phillips was due under the law.

It’s irrational to argue that a cake with words conveys a message, but a cake without words does not. Wedding cakes are symbolic baked goods, signifying approval of a “specific system, idea (or) institution.” (West Virinia Bd of Ed v Barnette (1943). “That was precisely the approval Mr. Phillips intended to withhold in keeping with his religious faith.” In denying Mr. Phillips that choice while affording the bakers in Mr. Jack’s case the same choice, the Commission displayed a gross lack of neutrality. Gorsuch insists that the only reasonable course of action is both bakers to be treated the same. To some, all wedding cakes may appear indistinguishable, but to Mr. Phillips, that is not the case — his faith teaches him otherwise “and his religious beliefs are entitled to no less respectful treatment than the [other] bakers’ secular beliefs.”

Gorsuch further relies on the case of Smith, a Jehovah’s Witness who worked in a steel mill, accepting that the sheet steel he worked on might be used in munitions, but objecting to working directly on tanks. “The Court didn’t try to suggest that making steel is just making steel [or] that to offend his religion the steel needed to be of a particular kind or shape. Instead it recognized that Mr. Thomas alone was entitled to define the nature of his religious commitments … not a bureaucrat or judge ….”

Gorsuch confirmed that it is not appropriate for the US Supreme Court to tell Mr. Phillips that a wedding cake is just like any other without regard to the religious significance his faith may attach to it than it is for the Court to suggest that “for all persons sacramental break is just bread and a kippah is just a cap.”

That leaves only one way forward. The SCOTUS will reverse the judgment and hold the Commission’s order set aside. The Commission ought to think about this and use the SCOTUS reasoning in future cases to offer neutral reasons for their rulemaking. Gorsuch also stated that Phillips is entitled to judgment for the past six years facing unlawful civil charges.

Ouch! The State of Colorado may get hit in their pocketbook. And that might be what is necessary to make it clear that government cannot do these sorts of things to law-abiding citizens they happen to disagree with.

Part 4

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