Christian Business Owners Defend Their Religious Liberty in the Courts, With National Implications

Business owners can move forward in the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions with guarded hope in their battle to practice their faith convictions in the marketplace, religious liberty advocates say.

When the high court ruled June 4 in favor of a Colorado cake artist, it sent a promising — though not conclusive — signal to others whose businesses have been harmed or threatened by state or local government actions.

In their 7-2 decision, the justices ruled the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the religious free exercise clause of the First Amendment and demonstrated in its action “religious hostility” toward Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, a Christian who had declined to design and decorate a cake in celebration of the wedding of two men.

On June 25, the Supreme Court annulled a lower-court ruling against Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman, a Southern Baptist who refused to design flowers for a same-sex wedding. The justices instructed the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider its previous unanimous decision against Stutzman in light of their Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion.

Meanwhile, a host of wedding vendors who believe marriage is only between a man and a woman, as well as other business owners, await the resolution of similar cases in the courts. They have faced intense pressure as a result of refusing to provide their services for gay weddings and other events that conflict with their religious beliefs.

The Supreme Court’s actions in June offer a mix of optimism and uncertainty, Southern Baptist religious freedom specialist Travis Wussow said.

“It is encouraging that the court sided with Jack Phillips in Masterpiece and ruled definitively the religious hostility he experienced was a violation of the First Amendment,” said Wussow, general counsel and vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“However, the court declined to rule on several of the broader questions posed by Jack Phillips in his case, including whether or not the creation of a wedding cake constitutes speech under the First Amendment and whether the state can therefore compel that speech,” Wussow told Baptist Press in an email interview.

In the Masterpiece opinion, the justices clarified that the government “cannot show hostility or animus toward the religious beliefs of those making First Amendment claims,” he said. “We’re therefore optimistic that artists working in the wedding industry will therefore get a fair day in court and can’t be treated with hostility in the process.”

Yet, Wussow said, the ruling “leaves several important questions unanswered, and it will be up to the lower courts to answer them before the Supreme Court takes up another of these cases.”

In the Masterpiece opinion, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy — who has since retired — wrote that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not treat Phillips’ case “with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.” Hostility was demonstrated, Kennedy said, in the disparaging language from the commission to describe Phillips’ beliefs and in the panel’s finding that at least three other bakers acted legally in refusing to create cakes with messages that opposed same-sex marriage.

The result of similar cases “in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Kennedy wrote, “all in the context of recognizing that 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.”

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Source: Baptist Press