It was Evelyn Beatrice Hall — not Francois Marie Arouet, AKA “Voltaire” — who in 1906 first penned the memorable phrase now so often mis-attributed to the French philosopher: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Voltaire often criticized France’s 18th Century monarchial and church establishments, so Hall’s speculative description of what she thought he would have said of an unpopular book by another French philosopher likely was quite accurate.
Regardless, the memorable words explain why liberals, gay advocates, supporters of same-sex marriage, censors and book burners of all shades and everybody else with opinions to share should support Colorado baker Jack Phillips.
Phillips became an object of intense scorn and vilification by LBGT advocates when he declined four years ago to decorate a wedding cake for a gay marriage ceremony. The decorations sought included a pro-same-sex marriage message with which Phillips disagreed as an evangelical Christian.
He is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an evangelical non-profit legal defense group with a remarkable record of success in cases involving religious liberty and freedom of speech.
The reason Phillips’ attackers – including most notably the American Civil Liberties Union – are setting a dangerous trap for themselves was most precisely put in an Amicus Curiae Brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Sept. 7, 2017, by Acting Solicitor General and Counsel of Record Jeffrey Wall and nine other senior Department of Justice attorneys.
“A custom wedding cake is a form of expression, whether pure speech or the product of expressive conduct,” the brief stated. “It is an artistic creation that is both subjectively intended and objectively perceived as a celebratory symbol of a marriage.”
“Forcing Phillips to create expression for and participate in a ceremony that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs invades his First Amendment rights,” the brief continued.
Thomas Jefferson would agree with the brief, having written in an 1803 letter to Benjamin Rush these words: “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.”
Phillips’ attackers may succeed in persuading the Supreme Court to force him to submit to his critics’ demands. But what they win today could easily become the very weapon that someday is used to silence them. Burn your enemy at the stake today if you will but be warned the ropes may keep you bound in the flames tomorrow.
That’s why the First Amendment is the cornerstone of everybody’s liberty. It’s no coincidence that freedom of religion and its unrestrained exercise is the first liberty listed. But its sanctity is also inextricably linked to the second, freedom of speech, and the third, freedom of the press.
And when government, on its own or under the influence of those seeking to impose uniformity of thought, suppresses unpopular opinion, the First Amendment guarantees the people the rights of free assembly and petition for change.
Jefferson made the closely related point in rejecting the power of government to compel citizens’ financial support of candidates and causes they reject, noting that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”
Another word for such compulsion is “theft,” which is always wrong regardless of who is the victim. And don’t forget, the jobs, livelihoods and future prospects, however humble, of victims’ families are invariably damaged or destroyed by the cost of litigation and commercial injury.
Phillips’ store was not the only place the gay couple could go to have a wedding cake with all the frills their hearts desired. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were 180,450 bakers in America in 2016. Their median wage – half make more, half make less – was $25,090 a year.
“I never thought that the government would try to take away my freedoms and force me to create something that went against my conscience,” Phillips continued. “But the state of Colorado did and has forced me to lose 40 percent of my business and most of my staff.”
The Court reconvenes in October and oral arguments will be scheduled then, with a decision possibly coming in the critical weeks before the 2018 congressional elections. In the meantime, those silencing Jack Phillips should put themselves in his shoes. They may be on other feet tomorrow.
Mark Tapscott is executive editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and chief of its Investigative Group. Follow Mark on Twitter