One way for a country to enjoy peace is to ensure government leaders do not show malice of intent toward a religious belief. In a June 4 ruling, the Supreme Court was so adamant on this point that it didn’t even decide the main issue in a case – whether a Christian baker could refuse to sell a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. Instead, the court sided with the baker, Jack Phillips, because anti-religious animus was so clearly an official motive in fining him for discrimination against a customer.
The ruling leaves to another day the question of how to balance a business person’s religious objections to supporting gay marriage against the rights of gays to wed without facing bias from a commercial operation. For now, the court wanted to send a warning that government must be neutral toward religious beliefs in deciding how it acts against the practices of religious believers.
The 7-to-2 ruling focused on the open hostility of some members of Colorado’s civil rights commission toward Mr. Phillips’s Christian views in ruling against him. The court also pointed out the commission’s double standard in not fining three other bakers who had refused to sell cakes with anti-gay themes.
“It hardly requires restating that government has no role in deciding or even suggesting whether the religious ground for Phillips’ conscience-based objection is legitimate or illegitimate,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. The law protects against discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation, he added.
Courts have long looked at the motives of lawmakers and regulators in its decisions. In particular, government actions born of animosity toward the views of a religious minority violate the Constitution’s clauses that allow the free exercise of religion and prohibit the government establishment of religion. From the Republic’s early days, the Founders sought to prevent the kind of violent social conflicts over religious beliefs that had ripped apart Europe for centuries.
Justice Kennedy also sent a reminder of the qualities needed in government to keep social harmony. The Colorado commission, he wrote, “was neither tolerant nor respectful of Phillips’ religious beliefs.”
With the immense power of government to fine or to jail people, lawmakers and regulators must indeed embrace such civic affections and be fair in their actions involving religion. Motives do matter as much as the law.