Monday, June 4, 2018

Partial Victory for Religious Freedom

It’s June, the Supreme Court ruling season. Today the Supreme Court announced its ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. It was a 7-2 ruling in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop.

But it was a very narrow ruling, answering almost none of the questions surrounding the issue, and mainly just telling the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that they were wrong to express their hostility toward religion during their prosecution of the baker.

screenshot from this video

It’s good that the case informs this particular Commission, and possibly similar commissions in other states, that religious people have the same rights as other people.

But it is so narrow that the Court says nothing about protecting a creative person’s First Amendment rights if the state has a “compelling interest” it sees as greater than that person’s religious freedom, and it prosecutes without expressing hostility.

So I’m glad it’s not worse, but I wish it were better.

That seems to be how we feel most of the time when so much extra-Constitutional power is granted to these nine unelected judges.

At the bottom, there’s a video from November about the case. But here’s a quick review.

A Colorado appellate court ruled in August 2013 that, when Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips declined to design and create a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, he had violated their civil rights. This was in 2012, two years before same-sex “marriage” was legally recognized in the state; the couple got married in Massachusetts, where it was legal.

The couple was not denied service; only their particular commission for a custom product for a particular event was declined. Nevertheless, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission prosecuted and ruled that Phillips must “take remedial measures, including comprehensive staff training” on how conscientious objection must bow before anti-discrimination law in same-sex situations, and to “file quarterly compliance reports” with the state regarding the mandated retraining.

The appeal by Phillips claimed that whether to create a custom cake for a same-sex “wedding” is protected by two parts of the First Amendment: freedom of expression, and freedom of religion.

The ruling doen’t really settle either the freedom of expression or freedom of religion questions. But it gives a nod to respecting the rights of religious people.

Court drawing of Justice Kennedy announcing the ruling
image from here

In his ruling, Justice Kennedy showed this usual pattern of behavior by the Commission:

On at least three other occasions the Civil Rights Division considered the refusal of bakers to create cakes with images that conveyed disapproval of same-sex marriage, along with religious text. Each time, the Division found that the baker acted lawfully in refusing service. It made these determinations because, in the words of the Division, the requested cake included “wording and images [the baker] deemed derogatory.”
In other words, the Commission didn’t always require a baker to act against conscience. However, when it came to this case, the religious conscience was not respected.

Here’s what the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had testified, which was at issue:

Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.
One, the couple was not hurt. They were politely sent where they could get the services done by a willing provider. Two, religion isn’t rhetorical; it is deeply held belief. Even non-religious believers have deeply held beliefs, which constitute their religion, whether they call it that or not. Three, religion is an effort to live a good life, not to do evil. It was religion that led to the elimination of slavery, after it had existed in most cultures for millennia. Further, it was not religion that led to the holocaust, but hatred and bigotry—something differing from the Commission’s hatred and bigotry only in degree of power.

What is despicable is this Commission’s distortion of history in its zealousness to malign religious people.

So, at least the Court got it part right.

SCOTUS has no business deciding whether a baker should be forced to bake a cake—for any purpose. We don’t want the Supreme Court determining nitpicky laws compelling how we conduct our personal lives and businesses. So, in some ways it’s good the Court did not make a sweeping ruling.

An excellent analysis of the opinions is found on the SCOTUSblog, by Amy Howe. But I’d like to walk through the issues, just for clarity.

Two inalienable First Amendment rights were at issue: the free exercise of religion, and freedom of speech, often referred to as freedom of expression. These go up against a state’s “compelling interest” regarding another civil “right.”

The “right” these inalienable and also enumerated Constitutionally protected rights were up against was the “right” to buy a custom product from a particular creative businessperson regardless of that person’s willingness to create it.

That one’s not enumerated in the Bill of Rights, or anywhere else in the Constitution. That doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a right. Any God-given rights not enumerated are still vested in the states and the individuals.

But there is a simple way to know whether you are looking at a God-given natural right: were you born with it? You’re born impoverished, ignorant, and naked; you have a claim on your parents to care for you until you can care for yourself. But there’s no natural right to cake-by-the-maker-of-your-choice. You can’t have that as a right without enslaving someone else to provide it. So it’s not a right.

The issue isn’t really about getting a cake; the cake artist (his cakes are literally edible works of art, not just pretty, fancy cakes) politely recommended other cake shops that could meet the needs of the couple.
another screenshot from this video

The issue isn’t really about service to homosexuals, either. The cake artist gladly served all customers, and had a long history of doing so. It was a specific event—the same-sex wedding—that he did not want to use his art to promote.

As David Harsanyi wrote this about the case a year ago: 

Everything in his shop was available to gays and straights and anyone else who walked in his door. What Phillips did was refuse to use his skills to design and bake a unique cake and participate in a gay wedding. Phillips didn’t query anyone on his or her sexual orientation. It was the Colorado civil rights commission that took it upon itself to peer into Phillips’ soul, indict him, and destroy his business over a thought crime.
I’d like to try to translate this in terms that seem less inflammatory than “he just hates gays, and that’s wrong, so he should be forced to do what they ask.”

I have a friend who is an excellent artist. He makes his living doing works of art and selling them. Much of his work is on commission. That means a person comes to him (it used to be in a shop/studio, but now his studio is at his home). And they describe the work they are hoping he can create. Sometimes these are portraits or family groups. Sometimes they are religious works or historical pieces.

He doesn’t take every commission that comes to him. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing; if he takes on too many, he could overwork himself, and the quality would suffer, which would probably bother him more than the clients, but it’s an important factor.

But he also needs to do things that are worth putting the artistic effort into.

Suppose someone came to him asking for something he might find ugly. It could be something with nudity, or explicit sexual behavior, or something anti-Christian, or something racist. Even if the work would have no words on it, art expresses a message. And he might not want his name—or his style and reputation—attached to something repugnant to him.

It might even be that the person asking for the commission is personally disagreeable to him. That happened with an artist who was asked to paint a portrait of Pres. George W. Bush; he declined, because his personal views were at odds. That may have meant he wouldn’t have put his heart into doing the work. Or it might have meant he was afraid people would interpret his work as approval of someone he disapproved of, so it would seem untruthful to him. Or maybe life is just too short to put time and energy into something you don’t want to do. Someone else did the portrait, which turned out to be better for everyone.

So that’s how artistic endeavors work. If you want something creative/artistic done for you, you find someone whose work you like, and you ask to commission the work. The artist gets to say yes or no based on whatever reason he might have—and he doesn’t even have to tell you why.

The only difference with the bakery is that it is a shop; all comers are invited to come in and buy his wares. Still, he’s free to take on a commission for custom work or not. Owning a shop does not make someone a slave to every party who walks in the door.

Good business says he’ll do what he can, and if he doesn’t take on a commission, he makes suggestions of where the customer can go.

This kind of creative situation is also true for florists, photographers, T-shirt printers, stationery printers, and others related to wedding and other services.

It’s pretty clear that, if declining the message is “approved” by this Commission or some other ruling or influential body—a message such as something racist or profane, or even of an opposing political viewpoint—the creative person can turn it down without legal repercussions.

I think it would also be clearly legal for a Muslim baker to turn down work that goes against her beliefs—maybe even if she turned down a same-sex “wedding” cake. Certainly such a baker could turn down anything pro-Israel, or even anything pro-pork industry. A sensible customer would recognize and respect who they’re dealing with.

So what is it that makes same-sex “marriage” celebration, at a time when such a “marriage” wasn’t even a legal reality, a state interest of such great import that it overrides the most essential—and therefore first enumerated—of self-evident natural rights?

We don’t know, since SCOTUS doesn’t actually answer that question with their opinion. In fact, they leave all other creative religious people at risk of enslavement—as long as those prosecuting them don’t overtly mention their antipathy toward religion. “Try again, but be careful not to verbalize your religious bigotry next time,” is what the Court seems to be saying.

It was the narrowness of the opinion that allowed it to be 7-2, rather than 5-4 or 4-5. So, again, I’m torn. The Supreme Court has no business ruling on this issue; they had no business creating same-sex “marriage” in Obergefell. They have overstepped their authority repeatedly on issues related to same-sex “marriage,” and have put religious people in this predicament by their cavalier overreach.

But if the Court has any useful purpose in upholding the Constitution, they would have done well to say, “Of course you can’t enslave a human being to do work that directly violates his conscience, simply to serve a vocal minority group favored by the elites in media, academia, and socialist ideology.” That would have been helpful.

If we didn’t have activist judges on the Court, we might have gotten a more satisfying ruling. Gorsuch and Thomas seemed willing to give it.

But, as long as Kennedy is on the Court, he will rule with his gut on critical issues more often than with the Constitution. Justices Breyer and Kagan were only with Kennedy on this because the Colorado Commission had verbalized its meanness.

Meanwhile, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor were perfectly aligned with a pro-slavery ruling, as long as it makes them look like they favor a popular minority.

The best way to settle these divisive issues? Stop repeating the lie that religion is simply a cover for doing evil. Stop assuming evil of everyone whose opinion is different. Actually tolerate. Respect differences of belief, and don’t prosecute over them. Because prosecution over belief is tyranny, with all the ugly that attaches to that word.

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