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In our opinion: The court's ruling — disagreement does not equal discrimination

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, decorates a cake for a client on Sept. 21, 2017.
Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, decorates a cake for a client on Sept. 21, 2017.
Trevor Brown Jr., for the Deseret News

The Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling Monday in favor of a Colorado baker left more questions unanswered than settled in the legal tug-of-war between gay rights and religious liberty.

It did, however, seem to establish that religious belief must be treated respectfully as a fair party in those struggles. Put another way, disagreement does not equal discrimination.

That is a positive development. Whether religious belief is the party that prevails in the struggles that remain, however, is far from certain. The court did not carve out any religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.

In the case of the Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, a devout Christian who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, the court was clear about the manner in which the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had dismissed religious faith as an argument. Members of that commission “disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust,” according to a syllabus accompanying the court ruling.

This, the court said, “showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his (Phillips’) objection.”

Of course it did. The exercise of religious belief is a bedrock principle of the Constitution. The commission’s cavalier dismissal of this principle, especially in such vehement terms, was outrageous.

The commission’s ruling against Phillips was in sharp contrast to how the State Civil Rights Division found, in at least three other cases, that bakers had acted lawfully by refusing to make cakes with messages demeaning gay people or same-sex marriage.

“In view of these factors,” the court’s majority said, “the record here demonstrates that the commission’s consideration of Phillips’ case was neither tolerant nor respectful of his religious beliefs.”

The court also noted that, while laws and the Constitution protect the civil rights of gay people and couples, “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”

These are positive statements that should give comfort to the overwhelming majority of Americans who express religious devotion. Faith, in other words, cannot be summarily dismissed as a factor in discrimination cases.

That means the conversation and decision-making going forward should settle on this question: How do we balance the rights of religious people to live and act in accordance with their deeply held beliefs with the rights of others, in this case a gay couple, who also wish to live and act in accordance with their own deeply held beliefs?

This ruling is just the first flash in what a legal expert has called a constellation of same-gender discrimination cases working their way through the judicial system. A recent Associated Press report identified some of these as involving wedding videographers, graphic artists and florists. Other cases deal with hospitals declining to perform hysterectomies on gender-transitioning patients, and religious organizations that refuse to facilitate adoptions to same-sex couples.

How many of these cases the Supreme Court eventually hears remains to be seen. They undoubtedly will help shape the way religious and gay rights coexist in the nation’s future, defining the strength of the First Amendment and religion’s place in the public square.

The Colorado baker’s case appears at least to have established that religious faith must be considered respectfully going forward. While not much is certain, the court is calling for a different conversation.