What will students learn from the landmark case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission?

“Let them eat cake,” just not a wedding cake by Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Marie-Antoinette may have coined the phrase, but that’s essentially what the U.S. Supreme Court said last week to a Colorado couple who felt they were being discriminated against after a local bakery owner refused–due to his religious beliefs–to make them a cake for their same-sex wedding..

And while kids across Colorado are no longer in class, they’re gaining a lesson in U.S. government and civics that is likely to bring up more questions than answers.

Does the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in favor of the baker mean businesses can discriminate against people based on religion? How can the constitutional rights of one person outweigh those of someone else? What about precedent?

Amid all the questions, my fear is that our communal failure to teach the lessons of grace, love, and acceptance, from arguably the oldest text in history will force us to teach from texts that will one day reflect yet another ugly and painful picture of oppression in our country.

But to really understand the implications of the court’s decision, let’s start from the beginning (don’t worry, not that beginning).

In 1993, Jack Phillips opened Masterpiece Cakeshop knowing that there would be certain cakes he would decline to make out of adherence to his own religious beliefs. Thes would include cakes for Halloween and same-sex weddings. Fast-forward a couple decades to 2012, when David Mullins and Charlie Craig asked Phillips to bake a cake to celebrate their wedding.

When Phillips said he couldn’t create the cake without violating his Christian faith, Mullins and Craig took their disappointment and feelings of discrimination to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which cited a state anti-discrimination law and sided with them.

But what about Phillips’ right to freedom of speech and religion? That’s exactly what he said on his way to the Colorado Court of Appeals, where he argued that requiring him to provide a wedding cake for the couple violated his constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the Commission’s order, finding that Phillips had indeed discriminated against Mullins and Craig based on sexual orientation, therefore putting him in violation of state law.

When the Colorado Supreme Court denied review of Phillips appeal, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari, allowing the case to be heard by the Supreme Court.

And, as we now know, the court ruled 7-2 to reverse the decision by the Colorado Court of Appeals.

But why?

In his ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy said:

“The commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market,” the opinion states.

Now, while the decision was a win for Phillips, it did not set precedent for future cases.

So what will students learn about this landmark case?

Will the history books tout Phillips as modern-day savior of religious freedom? Will kids learn about the uprising of businesses that ignorantly declared their “right” to refuse service to members of the LGBTQ community?

Will teachers present a fair and balanced lesson in history on this? Or, will it mimic the filtered lessons of 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue alongside the lighter, more sanitized teachings of slavery?

While the Supreme Court justices can afford to offer a half-baked ruling that absolves themselves from addressing the larger issue of how to balance the rights of all people, come August, teachers will face an audience whose appetite for social justice requires more. And they’re going to have plenty of questions about how this historic case shapes the path forward for religious liberty and equal protection under the law.

As for me, the whole situation has left a pretty bad taste in my mouth — and I love Jesus…and cake. But there’s something missing in the wake of the ruling that’s left me about as satisfied as “splurging” on a piece of sugar-free cake.

And whatever we teach our kids about this case next fall and in the years to come, the conversation can be made richer and more fulfilling if we can infuse it with the most important ingredients expressed in Kennedy’s ruling: tolerance, respect and dignity.

Mix it together with love and empathy for real people and the unique value we all bring, and this life could be a whole lot sweeter for all of us.


Photo credit: The Denver Post


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