Editorial | Supreme Court sides with baker

Editorial | Supreme Court sides with baker

Expect similar cases like the one in Colorado to come before the high court in the future.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week issued a ruling in the controversial case of a Colorado baker who cited religious objections for his refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

The baker won.

But there is little else about the ruling that clarified this collision between two hallowed concepts — freedom of religion and open public accommodations — because the high court's decision was based on extremely narrow grounds.

By a vote of 7-2, the court found that the irrational hostility to religion displayed by members of the Colorado Human Rights Commission during its review of the case violated the rights of Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop.

While the case against Phillips is over, the controversy over whether the state can force a merchant to take action at odds with his sincere religious beliefs still is wide open.

"The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a substantial, but still fractured, court majority.

Here is how the decision broke down among the justices.

Kennedy wrote the majority decision that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Samuel Alito and Neal Gorsuch.

Kagan wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by Breyer. Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, in which Alito joined. Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in part of the majority's reason and concurring in the judgment that was joined by Gorsuch.

Justice Ruth Ginburg wrote a dissent that was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Suffice it to say, that's a mishmash of opinions about a controversy so narrowly decided as to be of little help when future cases of this nature show up, as they inevitably will, on the court's docket.

While finding that Phillips' sincere religious objections were wrongfully treated with disdain, Kennedy said same-sex couples are entitled to the same treatment in the marketplace as anyone else.

"The exercise of their freedoms on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts," he said.

The gist of that right, he said, is that public accommodations laws do "not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and service."

Most people have no problem with that approach. Disagreement arises in those rare instances where religiously observant business owners have a sincere objection to performing a specific service that itself has religious overtones.

For example, Phillips, the baker, did not refuse service to the same-sex couple. He said he would happily sell to them or bake whatever they wished, with the exception of a wedding cake.

The vast majority of business owners do not invoke that kind of special exception. So there is no question that the same-sex couple in this case could get their wedding cake at any number of bakeries aside from the one that Phillips operated.

But it became a matter of principle for this couple and the state of Colorado to force Phillips to submit to the state's will, his religious convictions disdained.

There's a lesson in this decision for mayors of communities that have human rights ordinances — don't appoint ideological zealots to important fact-finding and decision-making panels.

In this case, members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission were so dedicated to the rights of same-sex couples that they could not fathom that there was another side to the question they must consider — Phillips' religious liberty.

The case stems from a 2012 incident, a date that preceded court decisions mandating same-sex marriage in all 50 states. While Kennedy has been a forthright proponent of gays right, he also has noted that there are those who do not — and never will — accept that legal edict for religious reasons.

He has said that the views of those with sincere religious objections deserve as much respect as those who are enthusiastic proponents of same-sex marriage. While an unreasonably idealistic call, it makes sense that both sides in this debate be willing to live and let live.

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