Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in a religious liberty case was narrow enough to avoid answering the large questions surrounding the issue.
But it was meaningful enough to draw a statement from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson: “Washington law protects people from discrimination in places of public accommodation. Today’s ruling specifically notes that such laws are appropriate. All of us should be able to eat in a restaurant, rent an apartment or buy flowers without fear of discrimination based on how we worship, or who we love. If I go to a restaurant with my young twins to celebrate their First Communion, I should not have to worry about whether a restaurant will refuse to serve us because we are Catholic.”
The Supreme Court ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was a victory for baker Jack Phillips, who cited religious objections in declining to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. Justices decided 7-2 that the civil rights commission’s handling of the dispute “has elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”
The decision does not mean that bakers can legally refuse to serve a same-sex couple — or that they cannot. It leaves that question to the future, and the answer could come in a case involving Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland.
Last year, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Stutzman had violated state law by refusing to create a floral arrangement for a gay couple because of her religious beliefs. That case might be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Ferguson said Monday’s ruling “may lead to additional procedural steps” but will not impact the ultimate outcome of the Arlene’s Flowers case.
At its core, the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling indicates that there is no room for discrimination on either side of the issue. If a state commission acts with animus toward anybody, it must be held accountable. Kristen Waggoner, a senior attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents both the Colorado baker and the Richland florist, said: “Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society, yet the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage. The court was right to condemn that.”
At the same time, it is up to government and the courts to ensure that patrons are treated fairly by bakers and florists and any other vendor that serves the public at large. If a florist serves heterosexual couples, attempts to hide behind a cloak of “religious liberty” to discriminate against same-sex couples must be condemned in a land where same-sex marriage is legal. Anything less is to allow codified discrimination that belies the very founding of this nation. Anything less is to repeat the arguments that were used to prop up Jim Crow laws for decades.
For those who believe compelling a baker to serve a same-sex couple is a violation of religious freedom, we simply ask: Does that baker refuse to serve couples who are fornicators? What about idolaters or people who have been divorced? Such customers violate many religious teachings, but as far as we know, no baker has claimed religious freedom in refusing service to a fornicator.
It is such hypocrisy that marks the difference between religious freedom and selective bigotry. It is such hypocrisy that defines unconstitutional discrimination. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court will be willing to definitively weigh in on those larger questions.