Speech or Religion?

I wrote several times, I’m pretty sure, that I thought the Masterpiece Cakeshop case would be argued by Jack Phillips’ attorney, and would ultimately be won, as a case about compelled artistic expression, a violation of the First Amendment’s speech clause. Free speech and compelled expression precedents are more strongly in Phillips’ favor than the current state of the law on free exercise of religion. Or so I thought.

I stand by that, but I’ll admit that the justices asked some pretty skeptical “where do we draw the line” questions about when or whether a cake is expressive, when a craft is art, and stuff like that (the last clause is my fudge factor — I’m not going back to review the transcript of argument again).

[Digression: I don’t think they’d have asked those skeptical questions had the case not implicated our newest Super-Right, the right to have everyone in every way affirm your every expression of your every sexual (and “gender”) whim. So it appears that the law of the land has another distortion factor baked into it: an LGBT distortion factor has taken root, joining the original abortion distortion factor (“no legal rule or doctrine is safe from ad hoc nullification by this Court when an occasion for its application arises in a case involving state regulation of abortion”) and a little-remarked creationist distortion factor (Creationists categorically lose cases involving science teaching—and intelligent design advocates get labeled “Creationists”).]

But I do disgress. I wrote today because someone I respect thinks, after scrutinizing the Masterpiece Cakeshop oral arguments, that the case could turn on the free exercise of religion after all.

Mark Bauerlein and Mark Movesian recently chatted about this on the First Things podcast. Bauerlein is no lawyer, but Movesian is a law prof, and he thinks Anthony Kennedy may smell blood in the water: a lack of neutrality or of general applicability in the Colorado law, which could be fatal under Employment Division v. Smith‘s new test for free exercise violations (the “when does the constitution create a religious exemption to a law” question).

The lack of neutrality (e.g., gerrymandering to target an unpopular religion) has been fatal in only one famous case since Employment Division v. Smith, to the best of my recollection: a case involving Hialeah Florida targeting the Santeria religion, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. But general applicability has been a wider problem, because, basically, religion gets an exemption if anyone gets an exemption, and our laws typically are riddled with “small business,” “Mrs. Murphy’s Boarding House” or other piddly little exemptions that someone lobbies for powerfully or that seem fair to legislators.

So here’s the problem: Colorado has, on something like three occasions, exempted cake bakers from making cakes that opposed gay rights or same-sex marriage. I assume those cakes were sought by provocateurs who, frankly, I would have dismissed as misguided and counterproductive (I actually may have so dismissed them). But by asking for a Bible-shaped cake with a Romans 1 “Clobber Passage,” the provocateurs may have turned refusal into “anti-Christian discrimination.”

Not only did those other three bakers win on the basis of dubious distinctions from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, but a couple of Colorado’s Civil Rights Commissioners slung some bigoted-sounding remarks at Jack Phillips, with which Justice Kennedy grilled Colorado’s attorney. (Pro Tip: Do not let any mean words pass your lips if Anthony Kennedy may eventually be judging your case.)

I’ve taken more time than intended hyperlinking to terms of art and cases that not all readers may know, so I’ll wrap up.

Bauerlein, the non-lawyer, was delighted to think this might be decided on free exercise of religion grounds. I disagree. I would consider it remarkable and disheartening if Jack Phillips won on “an oopsie!”—catching the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in an inconsistent application of its facially neutral and exceptionless law—because that would be a narrow decision where I’d like, the cases that have built up in this area need, and the Supreme Court normally delivers, something bigger and more definitive than “this one Colorado law was applied to Jack Phillips in an nasty and inconsistent, and therefore unconstitutional, manner.”

The country doesn’t get a lot of guidance out of that on how to behave in the future, and what guidance it does get tends toward “use some guile and maintain plausible deniability when you stick it to Christian bigots.”

But if Colorado’s “oopsie” prompts overruling of Antonin Scalia’s nadir, his new free exercise test in Employment Division v. Smith, and restoration of the status quo ante, the Wisconsin v. Yoder free exercise test, I would be stunned and very, very happy.

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About readerjohn

I am a retired lawyer and an Orthodox Christian, living in a collapsing civilization, the modern West. There are things I'll miss when it's gone. There are others I won't. That it is collapsing is partly due to calculated subversion, summarized by the moniker "deathworks." This blog is now dedicated to exposing and warring against those deathwork - without ceasing to spread a little light.
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