As this U.S. Supreme Court term winds down, we reflect on one of its signature decisions, the Masterpiece Bakeshop case. The facts of this case and those similar to it have been debated since the legalization of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. The threshold question has been, how will same-sex marriage impact the rights of religious objectors? Suits have been brought and filed against religious small business owners such as bakeshops, florists and photographers. While the outcome of Masterpiece Bakeshop was a victory for religion and proof that it justifiably maintains Constitutional protections, the decision and reasoning used in the majority opinion approached the matter from a narrow perspective. In my personal opinion, Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion (joined by Justice Gorsuch) presented a stronger method of legal reasoning, freedom of expression.
With regards to the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy focused on the issue of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission adjudicating the complaint against Masterpiece Bakeshop with an animus towards religion. The public record reflected unjust bias against matters of faith and most specifically the bakeshop owner, Jack Phillips, with unfair commentary by the commissioners which in turn called into question the fairness of the proceeding. The majority opinion relied on discussing the State’s duty under the First Amendment to not base laws or regulations on hostility towards religion or a religious viewpoint. This opinion provided acceptable Constitutional reasoning, but it would have been stronger if it had focused on reinforcing the importance of Jack Phillips’ constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Justice Thomas argued in his concurrence that “states cannot punish protected speech because some group finds it offensive, hurtful, stigmatic, unreasonable, or undignified.” He cited Texas v. Johnson that provided, “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.” He warns that this sets a dangerous precedent for state actors and government to stomp out any forms of expression that it deems not in line with the mainstream. This is a very dangerous path that the United States must not undertake and is a major issue that the Constitution was meant to defend against.
Finally, the last paragraph of Justice Thomas’s opinion provides an excellent summary that recognized the warranted fears for religion that emerged after Obergefell. Justice Thomas stated:
“In Obergefell, I warned that the Court’s decision would inevitably come into conflict with religious liberty, as individuals are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same sex couples. This case proves that the conflict has already emerged. Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day. But, in future cases, the freedom for speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to ‘stamp out every vestige of dissent’ and ‘vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.’ 576 U.S. at ____ (Alito, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 6). If that freedom is to maintain its vitality, reasoning like the Colorado Court of Appeals’ must be rejected.”
This was a powerful statement by Justice Thomas and emphasized that his warning regarding the harmful threats to religion indeed have come to pass. Freedom of expression doctrine can largely mitigate the harmful threats towards religion.
It is commonly presented in opposition commentary that there should be bounds to freedom of expression, most notably in regards to religious objectors and that freedom of expression should not be used to expel or discriminate against people. Well one could argue that in these facts there is no such weaponization. Jack Phillips offered to make regular cakes and other products for the same sex couple. They were never denied service to his establishment, he just simply chose to not provide same sex wedding cakes as a featured product at the bakery. It did not matter if the couple sought to purchase the product or one of their mothers. There was no animus towards an individual entering the establishment based on their orientation. It was a conscious religious choice by Phillips to not produce the product. This is an essential fact with regards to the analysis and one that should be the subject of further commentary when adjudicating these cases.
Overall, Obergefell has had far reaching effects most notably in the context of religious freedom, Despite what mainstream commentary would lead one to believe, there still is strong sentiment in favor of respecting religious values in this nation. Religious liberty was a major factor in establishing this nation as evident in the early Protestant settlers that had fled England in response to religious persecution. The right to religious liberty and expression are core constitutional principles. While Masterpiece was a start in the right direction, there is still much work to be done and I argue it should have went further.
Maybe just maybe one day Justice Thomas’ brilliant concurrence will be central reasoning in a religious liberty majority opinion, time will tell……….