Last July I wrote my first column about the Supreme Court’s decision to take up an important public accommodations case, wrestling with whether it was legal for a Christian baker in Colorado to refuse, on religious grounds, to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple’s reception. I said at the time that like every other person alive, I’m complex. It’s hard to put me in a box. And since I’m a small business owner, and gay, and a Christian (the “three me’s”), I saw the issue from different angles.
Now the court has rendered a decision. By a vote of 7-2, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled that the process ruined the result, scolding the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for being dismissive of the religious objections of the baker and reversing its determination.
Initially it appeared the baker’s victory meant the couple’s defeat. But did it? The three me’s have some thoughts:
Me the small business person gets irritated when someone tries to tell me how to run my shop. I felt some empathy for the baker. After the decision, it’s clear the court still firmly believes that the baker and I need to get over ourselves and follow reasonable regulations in a public marketplace. Justice Kennedy wrote, "It is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law." Note the words “protected persons.” It matters. Score one for public accommodation laws.
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Me the gay man actually feels really good about the decision. Religious conservatives had asked for the broadest ruling possible, that free speech trumps nondiscrimination laws. The court said forget about it. Kennedy said, “Few persons who have seen a beautiful wedding cake might have thought of its creation as an exercise in protected speech.” With conservative Justices Roberts, Alito and Gorsuch concurring with both the decision and the reasoning, the court chose the concepts of respect and dignity to unequivocally say that mistreatment of religious and gay persons in the marketplace isn’t acceptable. Kennedy said, "These disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious belief, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market." Score one for the Court.
Me the Christian rejoices! As I said last year, the Old and New Testaments plead for the faithful to show hospitality, love and kindness, which was modeled by Jesus himself. And because the baker was using Christianity as a reason to discriminate, the concepts of respect and dignity laid out by the court become even more powerful. The God of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad calls us to show kindness and love, especially to those who we think don’t deserve it. The court said those are good enough reasons to follow the laws of man as well. So score one for Jesus.
As in all Supreme Court cases, the written words matter most for posterity and precedent. In this case, the baker enjoyed a tactical win, while equality was granted a strategic victory. And when Justice Kennedy powerfully wrote, “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” he and the other conservative justices on the court acknowledged for the first time in our nation’s history that gay people are, first and foremost, entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through equal protection under our laws. Perhaps just when we need it most, score another one for America.