“Narrow” win for Christian baker has broad implications for religious liberty

Michael Zigarelli

Masterpiece Cakeshop was supposed to complete the triumvirate. In 1962, it was public education. In 2015, marriage. Now, the Supreme Court would banish God from the workplace as well.

School, family, work: Religion-free zones. That’ll fix things.

But secular social engineers will have to wait a bit longer for their utopia. The baker won, the gay couple lost, free exercise lives to fight another day.

And indeed, there will be another day. The Court didn’t say whether business owners can opt out of same-sex weddings. They simply ruled that the beleaguered baker—who has lost 40 percent of his business, every legal challenge since 2012, and countless nights’ sleep from death threats—wins this time because the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was hostile toward his religious viewpoint.

Perturbed pundits seized that as the narrative. The decision is so narrow, they insist, that it’s meaningless. Gotta have a fair trial. Everyone knows that. Nothing to see here.

That’s just salvaging spin. Religious liberty triumphed mightily in this case. Seven justices—four conservative, two liberal and one centrist writing for the Court—directed judicial bodies to be “tolerant,” “respectful,” and “neutral” toward religion in free exercise cases.

So what? Ask the legions of wedding vendors about the anti-faith disposition of attorneys general, human rights commissions and state courts. Ask the 70-year-old grandma in Washington facing the loss of both her flower shop and her home. Ask the bakers in Oregon who shut down after being fined 135K. Ask the Idaho wedding chapel operators who were threatened with a thousand-dollar-per-day fine plus 180 days in jail. Anti-religious animus yields anti-American results.

Masterpiece is a corrective. It reminds courts that they cannot devalue religion as a basis for speech and conduct.

Importantly, the win for religious expression did not come at the expense of other civil rights. Best line of the majority opinion: “These disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.” Could it possibly be said any better?

There’s something else to see here. The high court’s decision protected the hundreds of thousands of faith-based businesses in this country. Had the baker lost, it would have been open season on these businesses, both in the courts and on Main Street. Any mystery shopper could walk into a pizzeria, ask whether they’ll make pizzas for a same-sex wedding, and then if not, boycott, dox, flame, sue and otherwise torment them into bankruptcy. It would have been the very definition of “chilling effect.”

The bottom line is this: Masterpiece is not an exemption from anti-discrimination law; it’s an attempt to balance the right to equal service with the right to religious expression. The State can’t, by default, prefer one over the other.

What we don’t know, though, is what we wanted to know all along: Where’s the line? At what point does religious freedom become unlawful discrimination? When can the government compel citizens to speak and act against their conscience and beliefs?

“The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Justice Kennedy punted. But at least now he’s punting to a level playing field.

Michael Zigarelli is the editor of Christianity9to5.org.

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