The Case Was too Narrowly Decided For Any Side To Declare Victory
Even though Supreme Court gave a 7-2 decision overturning the State of Colorado’s ruling that a Colorado baker had discriminated against a gay couple, it is not an agreed decision.
The Surpeme Court was ruling on a case filed by a gay couple who claimed their civil rights had been violated by Masterpiece Cakeshop. Jack Phillip, the owner of the store, refused to make a wedding cake for the couple because he claimed their marriage violated his religious beliefs, which were constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. The Colorado Court and Civil Rights Commission all ruled in favor of the couple.
The judges had different justifications for overturning the decision. More conservative judges like Gorsuch and Thomas believed that the decision did not go far enough. They wrote opinions making it clear they want carte blanche religious freedoms for individuals, creating a de facto elimination of rights for the LGBTQ community. “The Constitution protects not just popular religious exercises from the condemnation of civil authorities. It protects them all,” read the opinion written by the conservative judges. To them, this is not just an issue of freedom of speech, but also the freedom to exercise religion. By arguing that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission “presumed that Mr. Phillip harbored an intent to discriminate against a protected class” they are creating a separation with religious belief and intent to discriminate. The conservative judges are arguing that believing in a religion that preaches against homosexuality does not automatically grant a court of law from presuming that actions are intended to discrimination. The a priori issue should be about protecting the rights of religious belief, then determining whether discrimination was premeditated.
More liberal judges like Breyer and Kagan made their decision based on the language used by one of the members of the Civil Rights Commission that attacked religion during the ruling. The mentioned member compared the claim of religious protection that the baker was making to justifications for slavery and the Holocaust. The strident rhetoric created a situation where they felt the decision was not reached in a fair and balanced manner.
Therefore, the majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, gave a very narrow ruling that does not mean a huge win for religious freedom advocates. Because much of the decision is based on the critical facts of the case, it will be difficult to apply in other situations where individuals claim religious freedom to deny services to members of the LGBTQ community.
However, the symbolic power of it could have consequences. It could encourage individuals to become increasingly hostile to those identifying or are believed to be LGBTQ. Businesses could think they’re protected, and we could see a spike in denial of services.