Many commentators reacted to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Colorado “gay wedding cake” case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, by saying the justices had “punted” in deciding the case on narrow grounds. But the court, by avoiding the choice to prioritize religious freedom over nondiscrimination or vice versa, has been both faithful to its own best traditions and prudent in limiting its intervention in the ongoing cultural adjustment to same-sex marriage. If this is punting, then the country needs more of it, not less.
This decision offers Catholics—and indeed all Americans—a welcome opportunity to step away from the trenches of the culture war.
Beyond the Supreme Court’s caution in refraining from unnecessarily adjudicating constitutional issues, the basis on which it did resolve this case is heartening. Writing for the 7-to-2 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy quoted at length a commissioner who compared the baker’s refusal with the use of religion to justify the most extreme forms of discrimination, including slavery and the Holocaust. Such hostility toward religious belief, the court ruled, tainted the proceedings sufficiently to require the commission’s decision against the baker to be invalidated. The court thus affirmed Colorado’s right to protect its citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but it also required that Colorado undertake such protection without the hostile assumption that traditional religious beliefs about marriage are necessarily discriminatory. Catholics can and should give robust agreement to both those positions.
After the 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the court found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the editors suggested that gearing up for a permanent culture war would work against the church’s mission to evangelize. After Obergefell, we argued, there was “an opportunity for Catholics of every political stripe to assume an even more robust public presence, but from a different starting point: that of human encounter rather than of tactical confrontation.”
This most recent decision offers Catholics—and indeed all Americans—a welcome opportunity to step away from the trenches of the culture war and look for more fruitful and hopeful opportunities to encounter each other anew. Perhaps what the country needs is not a definitive legal ruling, but common understanding of the real fears felt by people on all sides of these cases. In more than half the states, no law protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodation. At the same time, as the Colorado case demonstrates, some advocates for nondiscrimination bear an animus against religious belief, as if it must be defeated in order for justice to be achieved.
It is unlikely that the deep questions of justice and toleration—both of religious belief and of differences in sexual orientation—turn on what kind of cakes someone is allowed to purchase or can be compelled to bake. But they may well turn on whether we pursue their answers through legal confrontation or human encounter. The court has given the country a chance to consider these questions together, rather than against each other. We ought to take advantage of the opportunity.