GUEST VIEW: The Supreme Court’s unexpected wedding cake verdict

The following editorial was published in the Chicago Tribune:

(TNS) In ruling for a Colorado baker who cited his religious objections in refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t decide the interesting question at the heart of the case: whether civil rights laws override such objections. The justices did not decide the issue everyone expected them to decide. But the decision they reached was nonetheless important and sensible.

The two men who went to Masterpiece Cakeshop in 2012 to order a cake for their ceremony — despite a state law barring same-sex marriage — were surprised by the owner’s refusal. They filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission arguing that the owner, Jack Phillips, had violated the state law forbidding discrimination by businesses on the basis of sexual orientation.

Phillips said he welcomes business from gays and was willing to sell the couple a pre-made cake or other baked goods. But he said it would violate his religious freedom if he were compelled to use his creative talents for an event he regards as a violation of the laws of God. (Phillips, by the way, also refuses to make cakes for Halloween on religious grounds.)

The Civil Rights Commission ruled that he had violated the law, a decision upheld by a Colorado appeals court. But on Monday, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to strike it down — not because of the conclusion the CCRC reached but because of how it addressed Phillips’ objections.

One commission member, the court noted, accused Phillips of “despicable” claims, using his “religion to hurt others” in the same way defenders of slavery once did. Another said he should put aside his religious beliefs “if he decides to do business in the state.”

The justices concluded that the commission’s handling of the dispute “has elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.” And that animus conflicts with the state’s obligation to act in a fair and neutral way on religious matters.

This decision does not mean bakers can refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex unions — or that they can’t. It leaves that question to the future. “The Supreme Court reversed because the panel that heard his case below was biased,” noted Northwestern University law professor Andrew Koppelman. “It said nothing that will prevent a new panel from ruling against the baker, as is the likely result under Colorado law.”

But the court upheld a vital principle that has application far beyond this case. A zoning board considering a proposed mosque may not reject it because the board fears Muslims. The Department of Veterans Affairs can’t forbid Wiccan symbols on gravestones in military cemeteries on the ground, voiced by President George W. Bush, that Wicca is not really a religion.

In sum, a government body can’t skew its treatment according to whether it likes a particular religious group or belief. Two of the court’s liberals, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, who might have been expected to side with the same-sex couple, concurred in the verdict, saying state decisions of this kind are valid only if they “are not infected by religious hostility or bias.” Even the dissenters, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, didn’t contest the principle, only its application.

Bakers who assert a religious liberty not to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples may or may not ultimately win that fight. But when the court demands a careful impartiality from those deciding such issues, everyone comes out ahead.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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