NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: SCOTUS ruling helps, but it can go further

Many are celebrating the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision this week in favor of a Colorado baker who wouldn’t make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012.

Monday’s ruling, however, was limited to baker Dave Phillips’ case, leaving open the possibility that in future cases a service provider’s religious beliefs might have to yield to the state’s interest in protecting the rights of same-sex couples. What’s more, the majority did not make any ruling on whether compelling Phillips to bake a cake for a same-sex couple would violate his right to freedom of speech, which is central to the case.

Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins had visited Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver to ask him to create a cake for their wedding celebration. The two men had been married in Massachusetts — same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Colorado.

Phillips has said all along that he didn’t turn away the two customers because they are homosexual. He turned down the order they requested, explaining politely that he didn’t design cakes for activities that violate his conscience because of his Christian faith, including, for example, Halloween and divorce parties.

Since Colorado law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the gay couple appealed to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled that Phillips’ refusal violated the law, a conclusion upheld by a Colorado court.

The Supreme Court explained its decision Monday was based on anti-religious bias by the civil rights commission when it ruled against Phillips.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote on behalf of the court in reversing the judgment against Phillips that Colorado’s treatment of Masterpiece Cakes was “inconsistent with the state’s obligation of religious neutrality,” a violation of his First Amendment rights. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission, he wrote, showed obvious contempt toward Phillips’ religious beliefs in being “neither tolerant nor respectful” of those beliefs.

However, the court failed to make a judgment resolving the ongoing legal fight over any business owner’s religious faith versus anti-discrimination laws that favor same-sex marriage.

Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog, wrote that Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate opinion joined by Neil Gorsuch, saying that “Phillips’ creation of custom wedding cakes is exactly the kind of ‘expressive’ conduct protected by the First Amendment.” In other words, “mandating that Phillips bake cakes for same-sex weddings violates his right to free speech.”

There are other pending legal disputes similar to the Phillips case regarding wedding services. A florist in Richland, Wash., the AP reports, “has appealed a state Supreme Court ruling that found she violated state law for refusing to provide the wedding flowers for two men who were about to be married.”

The Supreme Court may decide yet this month what to do with that appeal. Ultimately, we hope it definitively rules against the government punishing people for operating their businesses consistent with their beliefs about marriage.