‘Gay wedding cake’ ruling won’t resolve religious freedom issues

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The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its long-anticipated ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In a 7-2 decision, the justices sided with a Denver bakery owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. 

The couple took the case to court in 2012 after the Christian baker turned down their business. A lower court ruled the baker violated Colorado’s public accommodations law, which forbids discrimination by businesses serving the public, including on the basis of sexual orientation.

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that Colorado officials “showed evidence of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs” of the baker. 

The narrow ruling did not, however, meaningfully resolve the larger issue of religious freedom that was central to the case.  In focusing on state officials rather than the baker, the justices left unanswered the major question of whether a business owner must provide services that conflict with his or her religious beliefs. Analysts suggested that the court left open the possibility of a different ruling in the future, depending on the specifics of cases. 

Masterpiece Cakeshop has, once again, highlighted the vast difference between the reality and the rhetoric of religious freedom, often considered to be an ideal that promotes harmony and equality. My research, as a historian of religion, has examined the challenges of pluralism. In a religiously diverse society, rhetoric of religious freedom has often led to conflict. 

Throughout U.S. history, Americans have idealized religious freedom and imagined that it brings harmony.

The Founding Fathers believed the First Amendment guarantee of religious free exercise and against the establishment of an official church promised less discord. In an 1802 letter, Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” As the nation’s third president, he argued that a “wall of separation between Church & State” would give all people equally the right to free conscience. Later presidents echoed the view that religious freedom brings equality and unity by preventing government from favoring particular faiths.