The cake

Since our last edition of The Anchor, so much has been happening in our world, from the Singapore summit with North Korea, to the volcanoes taking homes and lives in Hawaii and Guatemala, to the continuing work to try to heal the hurt of the Catholic Church in Chile, to the numerous wars throughout the world, to the continuing political turmoil in our country, to the celebrity suicides which Father Landry addresses on the facing page. In the face of so much human suffering, a controversy about a wedding cake might seem like small potatoes. Nonetheless, the members of the Supreme Court and many other people see great significance and symbolism in it.

Last week, in a seven-to-two decision, the court upheld in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission the right of a baker to not have to prepare a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, while also reaffirming the baker’s duty to serve gay people other non-symbolic pastries (which the baker in question was doing).

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the decision. It should be noted that he is normally conservative on economic issues, but liberal on social ones having to do with homosexuality and abortion. He discussed balancing rights. “The case presents difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles. The first is the authority of a state and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services. The second is the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedoms asserted here are both the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.”

Justice Kennedy mentioned that “when the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.” In other words, the commission expressed hostility to anyone who might be against same-sex marriage and this prejudice against the baker was part of the reason the majority of the court (including Justice Stephen Breyer, whom President Clinton appointed, and Justice Elena Kagan, appointed by President Obama) decided in his favor. 

According to Kennedy, “Jack Phillips is an expert baker. He has explained that his ‘main goal in life is to be obedient to’ Jesus Christ and Christ’s ‘teachings in all aspects of his life.’ And he seeks to ‘honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop.’ One of Phillips’ religious beliefs is that ‘God’s intention for Marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman.’ To Phillips, creating a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding would be equivalent to participating in a celebration that is contrary to his own most deeply held beliefs. He later explained his belief that ‘to create a wedding cake for an event that celebrates something that directly goes against the teachings of the Bible, would have been a personal endorsement and participation in the ceremony and relationship that they were entering into.’”

Kennedy later discussed the respect that must be granted gay people, while also respecting religious freedom. “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. For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression. As this Court observed in Obergefell v. Hodges [the decision legalizing gay marriage], ‘[t]he First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.’”

The majority decision, written by Kennedy, did not allow all businesses to refuse to provide services to gay weddings (such as chair rental or limo companies, etc.). It focused on the fact that the cake would have to have a message which the viewers of it could have interpreted as the baker’s endorsement of gay marriage. The decision mentions that Colorado authorities had allowed other bakers to not have to make anti-gay marriage cakes (other people had requested them), while they wanted to force Phillips to make these celebratory ones.

Kennedy mentioned the hostility of the commission to believers: “At several points during its meeting, commissioners endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community. One commissioner suggested that Phillips can believe ‘what he wants to believe,’ but cannot act on his religious beliefs ‘if he decides to do business in the state.’”

In another meeting, “another commissioner said far more to disparage Phillips’ beliefs. ‘Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be — I mean, we — we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to — to use their religion to hurt others.’”

Kennedy then added, “To describe a man’s faith as ‘one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use’ is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical — something insubstantial and even insincere. The commissioner even went so far as to compare Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. This sentiment is inappropriate for a commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s antidiscrimination law — a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation. The record shows no objection to these comments from other commissioners.”

In response to the decision, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a joint statement by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty; Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; and Bishop James Conley, chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. They stated, “Today’s decision confirms that people of faith should not suffer discrimination on account of their deeply held religious beliefs, but instead should be respected by government officials. This extends to creative professionals, such as Jack Phillips, who seek to serve the Lord in every aspect of their daily lives. In a pluralistic society like ours, true tolerance allows people with different viewpoints to be free to live out their beliefs, even if those beliefs are unpopular with the government.”

We know that this will continue to be a very contentious issue in our society and our Church. It shows the power of symbols (such as a wedding cake) and the importance of being true to one’s beliefs (and wanting them respected). May we Christians always witness to Christ’s teachings with love. He promised that we will receive countless blessings for doing so, “with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:30).


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