NEWS ANALYSIS: The Free Exercise Victory in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Ruling That Everyone Should Applaud

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NEWS ANALYSIS: The Free Exercise Victory in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Ruling That Everyone Should Applaud

Demonstration in favor of same-sex marriage in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, April 28, 2015. [Photo by Jordon Uhl, Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]

Hours after the Supreme Court of the United States released a 7-2 opinion in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, it’s difficult to assess how every aspect of the ruling will shake out.


But there is, I believe, a religious liberty dimension in the ruling that folks on both sides of the case should applaud–even if many probably won’t.

First, some background: Christian baker Jack Phillips, who owns the Masterpiece Cakeshop near Denver, employs people without respect to their sexual orientation, and serves gay customers. But because he believes that creating a wedding cake with a specific message is not merely the creation of baked goods (one turnover is essentially the same as another), but rather an artistic expression which he, Phillips, implicitly endorses, he drew the line at creating a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple who came into his store seeking one. Phillips offered to sell them other baked goods, however.


Masterpiece Cakeshop, Lakewood, Colorado. [Photo by Jeffrey Beall, via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.]

Craig and Mullins complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ordered Masterpiece to provide wedding cakes to same-sex couples but also to “change its company policies, provide ‘comprehensive staff training’ regarding public accommodations discrimination, and provide quarterly reports for the next two years regarding steps it has taken to come into compliance and whether it has turned away any prospective customers.”[1]


Phillips appealed, and lost at every turn, until the June 4 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States.


Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, who dissented from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against Phillips when Gorsuch was on that court, sums it up nicely:

[T]he Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to act neutrally toward Jack Phillips’s religious faith. Maybe most notably, the Commission allowed three other bakers to refuse a customer’s request that would have required them to violate their secular commitments. Yet it denied the same accommodation to Mr. Phillips when he refused a customer’s request that would have required him to violate his religious beliefs.[2]


Accommodating someone’s religious beliefs? Doesn’t that violate the famous “wall of separation between church and state”?


In a word, no. The First Amendment is extremely clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” [Emphasis added].


As Michael W. McConnell, a former Tenth Circuit federal judge and author of Religion and the Constitution notes:

If there is a constitutional requirement for accommodation of religious conduct, it will most likely be found in the Free Exercise Clause. Some say, though, that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause for the government to give any special benefit or recognition of religion. In that case, we have a First Amendment in conflict with itself—the Establishment Clause forbidding what the Free Exercise Clause requires.[3]


Among the issues in Masterpiece Cakeshop is the question of not only free exercise, but for that right to be considered by secular authority. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission had no problem supporting bakers who refused to create cakes with anti-gay messages, yet refused to offer similar understanding to Phillips and his sincere religious beliefs.


The Court’s decision reverses the earlier rulings. And while it may offer some shelter to Phillips from the punitive actions of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the decision likely does not offer blanket protection to bakers, photographers, flower arrangers and other artisans who offer their services for weddings. If anything, the issue is likely to resurface in the courts for several years to come.


But it is encouraging that the Supreme Court, by such a large majority, has struck a blow for the Free Exercise clause. Religious faith is not–cannot–be merely confined within the walls of a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or a meetinghouse. In the United States, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights guarantee citizens the right to exercise, or to live by, their faith in all circumstances.


This protection will be of tremendous importance to Sabbathkeeping believers, and to everyone else. If Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman, can’t be refused a job at trendy clothier Abercrombie & Fitch because she elects to wear a headscarf known as a hijab, the law must protect her, and the Supreme Court did, in a 2015 decision.


We can only hope – and pray – the justices will similarly protect others seeking to live out their faith, even if that right sometimes bumps up against other issues. Without such protection, there is no freedom.

[For more on religious liberty – Sabbath-case win latest in series of victories, reversing decades-old precedent]

[For more on same-sex marriage – Gay Marriage and the Supreme Court: What’s Really at Stake]



[1], Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, accessed online at, June 4, 2018

[2] Gorsuch, Justice Neil, with Alito, Justice Samuel, Concurrence, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, pp. 1,2

[3] McConnell, Michael W., Religion and the Constitution, 2002 ed., p. 102; cited at Legal Information Institute, Cornell University,

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About the author

Mark A. Kellner

Managing Editor Mark A. Kellner is a journalist living in Salt Lake City, Utah. From February 2014 to September 2015, he was a national reporter for the Deseret News, and has written about issues of faith and freedom since 1983. Mark also served as News Editor for the Adventist Review and Adventist World for seven years.