This is about the right of conscience.
This week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which baker Jack Phillips was censured by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for refusing to bake a wedding cake for two men, citing his religious beliefs. Those supporting gay marriage—which wasn’t legal in Colorado at the time—claim discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That’s what the Civil Rights Commission relied on in deciding against Phillips.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission consists of seven members, all appointed by Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper. Of the seven, at least three, including the chair and vice chair, live with their same-sex partners. Three are also very active advocates for gay rights in Colorado.
Phillips didn’t have much due process in having his case heard. Indeed, there is a lot of evidence to suggest the two men came into his shop looking for a confrontation that would help set a precedent.
On his side, Phillips and his attorneys argue that as an artist, Phillips deserves freedom of expression and should not be required to produce a unique product in the service of something he doesn’t believe in.
But the real key in all of this is that Jack Phillips is a sincere and devout Christian. His conscience will not let him bake a wedding cake for a homosexual union he believes to be wrong. He does not do Halloween cakes either.
This case is fundamentally not about discrimination because the prospective clients were homosexual. Nor is it about “public accommodation,” which a bakery certainly is not. It is not about freedom of association or even the right of an artist to decide what kind of commission he will accept.
This is about the right of conscience.
October 31, 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation established the then-novel concept that the average lay person could read and understand the Bible and learn its truth for him- or herself. Eric Metaxas, author of a recent biography of reformer Martin Luther, claims that this idea was so significant that it marks end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern Western world.
That idea led to the crumbling of medieval absolutism, both in the Roman Catholic Church and in the kingdoms of Europe. It led, two and a half centuries later, to the American Revolution.
And yet, this is more than conscience. It is also about acting on conscience.
Luther taught that all Christians have callings or vocations, and that all callings are equal in moral and religious seriousness. They only differ in function. Christians who receive grace through Christ become priests to their neighbors, mediating God’s love through them to the neighbor. Plain ordinary work is transformed into a Christian vocation as the Christian exercises his faith. Work is no longer simply a job or an occupation; it is a calling, a vocation. It is a summons from God.
It is clear listening to Jack Phillips that he believes this and seeks to live his life in this way. Christianity teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Jack cannot serve God in his vocation by participating in a ceremony that honors sin. It’s that simple.
Jack’s case will be judged by a Supreme Court which, in a majority Protestant nation, is composed of three Jews and five Catholics. Justice Gorsuch was raised Catholic but attends an Episcopalian church; it is unclear if he considers himself Catholic or Protestant.
Under our Constitution, that shouldn’t matter. Phillip’s opponents no doubt believe that the make-up of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission didn’t matter either.
Pundits will say that the Supreme Court is not ruling on a moral issue but rather a legal one. They will likely base their ruling on some point of law, real or invented, and not address the Constitutional issue of freedom of conscience at all. Phillip’s lawyers won’t even dare to frame the issue in this way.
This much is certain: this case will test whether we still have freedom of conscience or whether we will return to the medieval world of moral absolutism defined by the state.