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Masterpiece Cakeshop: What does it mean?

The Supreme Court of the United States decided Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on June 4. The case featured a clash between the religious liberty and free speech rights of a wedding cake artist and the legal claims of a same-sex couple. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of interpretations of the case and the future of religious freedom, freedom of speech, marriage and gay rights. In this column, I will summarize some of these interpretations.
In 2012, two men, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, approached Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, and asked him to create a wedding cake for their same-sex wedding ceremony. Phillips declined, based on his sincerely held religious belief about marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. 
Craig and Mullins filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. They claimed Phillips violated Colorado state law, which prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation against a person based on, among other categories, sexual orientation. Craig and Mullins’ claim was deemed meritorious by several adjudicatory bodies. Phillips appealed to the Supreme Court.
The high court considered two key issues: Whether Colorado’s public accommodations law that compels a cakemaker to create and design a cake that violates the baker’s sincerely held religious beliefs about same-sex marriage violates either 1) the free speech clause or 2) the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Ultimately, the court “punted” on Phillips’ free speech issue. Court watchers were expecting the justices to address whether creating custom-made cakes constitutes creative expression and, thereby, speech.
They did rule in Phillips’ favor on the free exercise clause claim. They found two critical components of government hostility toward his religious beliefs. They deemed them impermissible government action and a violation of Phillips’ free exercise of religion.
First, the Supreme Court denounced comments of Colorado Civil Rights commissioners that denigrated Phillips’ religious beliefs. The commissioners said his beliefs were akin to biblical defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. Second, the high court criticized the disparate treatment between Phillips’ case and the cases of several other bakers who refused to bake a cake with anti-same-sex marriage messages. With the latter, the commission claimed that the bakers were not engaged in discrimination based on the customer’s religious views, but were offended by the customer’s message. 
As with anything in law and politics, interpretations of the ruling vary among experts and scholars. 
Some believe the case has little-to-no value. Andrew McCarthy of National Review argued that the court has simply instructed future government decision-makers to be nice to religious believers: “In the next case, just patiently hear out the baker, politely rule against him, and move on – no more grandstanding about how much religion (stinks).” As Professor Darel Paul of Williams College stated, Masterpiece Cakeshop is a “harbinger of defeat” for future religious liberty claims. If the government does not show open hostility to you, you will have no religious liberty claim against the state. 
Others believe the case has reinvigorated free exercise clause law and will provide substantial protection to future religious liberty cases. David French of National Review has claimed that civil rights commissions are generally ideological and hackish, and it will take little work to show evidence of hostility toward religious believers who hold a traditional view of marriage.
John Eastman of the Claremont Institute has rigorously defended Masterpiece Cakeshop as resurrecting the free exercise clause. He argues that the court in Masterpiece applies a high-level scrutiny to a law that is neutral and generally applicable and not intended to target religion, something which the Supreme Court has not done in nearly 30 years – and they did so “because of how the law was applied to religious objectors.” He claims this will help several other pending cases.
Regardless of how future cases turn out, religious liberty has lived to fight another day because of the Masterpiece Cakeshop victory. As always, defending religious liberty requires vigilance and the work of vigilance is the work of each one of us. St. Thomas More, pray for us!
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at

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