Masterpiece Cakeshop Analysis (II): Douglas Laycock and Thomas Berg–Scotus Decision not as narrow as may first appear

The Supreme Court has announced a powerful ideal. Even when a law has no explicit exceptions, hostile enforcement is unconstitutional. Single-issue agencies that enforce state civil-rights laws must approach claims to religious exemptions with tolerance and respect. And this is apparently an absolute rule; the court does not consider whether hostility might be justified by some state interest, compelling or otherwise.

But a requirement of tolerance and respect, or even the avoidance of hostility, is difficult to enforce. The opponents of religious exemptions will now start doing the sorts of things done by many other government officials resisting constitutional mandates. They will seek doctrinal and rhetorical manipulations to cloak their hostility to the constitutional right, and their unequal treatment of objectors they agree with and objectors they don’t.

Those manipulations began in the state’s briefs and in the concurring and dissenting opinions. Kagan and Breyer said that the state’s discrimination could easily have been justified with a different explanation: The protected bakers would not have sold an anti-gay cake to anybody, but Phillips would sell wedding cakes to opposite-sex couples.

As Justice Neil Gorsuch explained, this reaches the preordained result by manipulating the level of generality. An “anti-gay” cake is distinguished only by what it displays on the outer surface. So the category is not cakes, or wedding cakes, but cakes with particular messages. If a same-sex couple wants a cake with two grooms, two brides, a rainbow, or any other indication of approval of same-sex marriage, that is a cake that Phillips would not sell to anybody. If they want a cake that could just as appropriately be used for an opposite-sex wedding, then at the surface, Kagan’s rationalization holds — but it is still a rationalization. Everyone would still know what is really going on: The commission agrees with the protected bakers and disagrees with Jack Phillips.

Masterpiece states an important ideal. But the Supreme Court has not been good over the years at identifying government bias or hostility that is the least bit shrouded. In a case without smoking-gun expressions of hostility, objectors will need evidence of inconsistent treatment of tester cases.

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