The Colorado Civil Rights Commission is at it again. It's going after Masterpiece Cake Shop owner Jack Phillips for refusing to "make a cake with a pink inside and a blue outside, celebrating a gender transition from male to female."
This comes only months after the US Supreme Court ruled against the Commission's regulatory attack on Phillips for not baking a cake for a gay wedding.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in Favor of Phillips, it nevertheless took a very narrow view.
Instead of criticizing the very existence of laws that trample on property rights by mandating that people be forced — under threat of state violence — to provide services for certain privileged groups, the Court only took issue with the reasoning employed by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission when it ruled against Phillips.
When the ruling came down, I commented on the specifics of the Court's narrow ruling:
The US Supreme Court today ruled 7-2 in favor of a Denver small business owner who has been threatened, sanctioned, and ultimately driven out of business by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The controversy arose when the cake shop owner, Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding, claiming to be motivated by religious beliefs.
The cake shop was hauled up before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission where the commission ruled that the shop must "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."
Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Alito, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch and Thomas all voted to overturn the earlier appeals court's decision to uphold the Commission's ruling against Phillips. Only Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.
In the decision , authored by Justice Kennedy, much of the reasoning centered on the fact that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated an apparently obvious bias against religious people, even though "neutrality" is legally required in such cases. The ruling states:
As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, 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.
The SCOTUS ruling also noted that both the Commission and the appeals court largely ignored and glossed over the fact that the Commission had on three prior occasions ruled in favor of bakers who had refused to bake cakes with anti-gay slogans on them. There was an enormous double standard at work.
As Kagan notes in her concurring opinion, the Civil Rights Commission was abandoning neutrality in favor of making decisions “based on the government’s own assessment of offensiveness.”
In other words, the Commission was deciding, based on the members' own personal prejudices and biases, who shall be forced to bake cakes, and who shall not.
With this ruling, the court took a small step in the right direction by taking exception to the Commission's claim that freedom of religion doesn't exist. As noted by Justice Kennedy, the Commission essentially dismissed the very idea that religious conviction could be a valid reason to claim an exemption from the Commissions rules and regulations.
The Court came back and slapped down this reasoning, but it left the Commission plenty of leeway to rule against Phillips using different reasoning.
Thus, as long as the Commission can manufacture a different rationale for ruining Phillip's business, it is free to do, as far as the US Supreme Court is concerned.
The court's limited approach here illustrates the problem with the Court's strategy on the matter of anti-discrimination law has always been problematic.
By limiting Philipp's free use of his property only to cases in which he can prove some sort of religious conviction, the Court — and the law in general — relies essentially on mind reading in determining whether or not Phillips should be allowed to use his property as he sees fit:
This has led to a number of absurd legal and legislative acrobatics in which property owners must prove that their business decisions are motivated by artistic choices or religious conviction, but not by some other motivating factor. Thus, government commissions and courts are required to read the minds of business owners and determine whether or not their internal feelings and religious views fall under some government-approved motivation for refusing some sort of business service.
Proving or disproving internal motivations, of course, has always been an extremely sketchy way of doing things. After all, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission concluded that Phillips was using his religious views to justify unlawful discrimination. This, of course, requires that the commission members somehow have certain knowledge about the thoughts in Phillips's head.
This sort of reasoning also has the habit of working against business owners who hold views that are held only by small minority or otherwise might be considered especially idiosyncratic. One might argue that one is religiously opposed to providing some sort of service. But unless those views are recognizable to judges and bureaucrats as part of a known religious movement, the business owner is likely to be accused of simply making up an ad hoc religion to "mask" unlawful discrimination.
Ultimately, this sort of subjectivity invites just the sort of corruption and bigotry we see on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
There's a far less complicated way of protecting rights in these cases, however, we should stop talking about "freedom of religion," and focus on ordinary property rights instead. In practice, freedom of religion can only be truly protected by protecting property rights overall. After all, all rights — including freedom of speech and freedom of religion — depend on the ability to exercise control of one's own body and property.
As Murray Rothbard has demonstrated, rights to religious expression and speech are simply types of property rights. Consequently, religious liberty and free speech can be protected with a more general respect for property rights. By saying that Phillips ought to be forced to bake a cake, the Commission is asserting that Philipps does not enjoy ownership over his own body, or the shop and tools he acquired by using his body to perform labor.
Having refused to acknowledge these property rights, though, the Supreme Court has empowered the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to continue its war against small-time bakery owners who are no threat to anyone and impose their views on no one. The Commission already knows how it's going to rule. Its hostility to Phillips is apparent, and there's not reason to believe the Commission will stop until it has succeeded in ruining him. The challenge the Commission faces, however, is in reverse engineering a ruling that can survive a legal challenge. I'm sure that with the help of a sufficient number of taxpayer-funded lawyers, the commission can succeed in this endeavor.