In 2015, Republican appointed Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy made history when he voted with Liberal justices in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized gay marriage nationwide. This was a landmark case for the gay civil rights and its decision came down to Kennedy’s single vote. Later this year, Kennedy will cast an equally important deciding vote in a case that will determine whether or not discrimination is protected under the constitution.
This case revolves around a Colorado baker named Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in a suburb near Denver. In 2012, a gay couple requested a custom cake order for their wedding. Philips refused, stating that serving a gay couple’s wedding violated his religious beliefs. However, Colorado is one of the few states that has an anti-discrimination law that prevents the refusal of service based on sexual orientation, and indeed, the couple sued Phillips and won. The case was fairly clear-cut, given that Philips violated state law and faced the consequences. Philips, however, believed the state law violated his First Amendment rights. He argued that by taking away his ability to refuse service for a gay wedding, his free speech and religious freedom were being violated. Phillips appealed the decision, which is now going before the Supreme Court.
Every Supreme Court case sets a legal precedent. Courts at all levels look at past rulings in order to maintain a consistent interpretation of the Constitution. As a result, I strongly fear that ruling in favor of Mr. Philips sets a horrific precedent for future civil rights cases, no matter what the final opinions say.
Mr. Phillips’s argument essentially boils down to the notion that he has the right to refuse to serve people whose lifestyle his religion tells him is wrong, even though his cake shop is in no way registered as a religious organization. He personally only seems to have an issue with gay couples, but a precedent would apply to any similar cases. Imagine if an interracial couple walked into a business and the business owner refused to serve them because he claimed that a relationship went against his religious beliefs. This argument has certainly been made before, and racists consistently argue that interracial marriage is an abomination against God. I’d assume most people would see a problem with that; it is textbook discrimination. But if that is considered discrimination, why isn’t refusing someone service based on sexual orientation also a textbook case of discrimination?
When asked this exact question, Mr. Philips’s attorneys responded that, “race is particularly unique.” In the context of the illegality of discrimination, this makes no sense. Gay rights and racial rights have had different historical paths, but both involve groups who’ve been marginalized, and often times physically harmed, due to an intrinsic aspect of themselves that makes them different. I’m not arguing that the experiences of racial minorities and gay individuals are the same, but the sentiment that it is acceptable to treat some as lesser than everybody else because they’re different is clearly discriminatory, and discrimination is unconstitutional. Were Mr. Philips to win this case, a precedent would be created that if any entity, or any a business that serves the public, claims religious freedom, discrimination is acceptable. That is dangerous and antithetical to American values. Even if the justices rule in Mr. Philip’s favor, but claim that the ruling applies exclusively to businesses who refuse service to LGBTQ+ individuals, it would still be incredibly problematic, as the Supreme Court would be explicitly ruling that LGBTQ+ individuals are second class citizens who uniquely do not qualify for legal protections.
Clearly the court must rule against Mr. Philips. Unfortunately, Justice Kennedy’s comments so far have given little indication as to which way he will rule. Hopefully he will see that Mr. Philips was clearly engaging in discrimination and will, as he did in 2015, rule in favor of equality.
The views expressed above are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Penn Democrats.