Religious Dissenters Race To Claim ‘Masterpiece’ Decision In Ongoing Court Battles

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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  • The Masterpiece Bakeshop Supreme Court decision is already having implications in other cases.
  • A college campus ministry is using Masterpiece to show a university is unfairly targeting it for their exclusively-Christian leadership.
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop’s lawyers believe the decision will resolve other cases they’re litigating in favor of their clients.

Social conservatives are already leveraging Monday’s Supreme Court decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, claiming the 7-2 ruling vindicates their positions in a range of ongoing cases.

Though the justices avoided the primary constitutional questions animating disputes between same-sex couples and merchants of faith, religious dissenters believe the ruling’s unqualified condemnation of heavy-handed secularism buoys their legal prospects across the country.

Masterpiece was cited just one day after the decision was released in a brief the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed at a federal court in Michigan in connection with ongoing litigation between InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Wayne State University. InterVarsity, an evangelical campus ministry, is suing the university because its Wayne State chapter was stripped of school certification. Administrators found its constitution failed to comply with the college’s non-discrimination code.

InterVarsity requires chapter officers to embrace its organizational statement of faith, which consequently excludes non-Christians from leadership positions. As a result, Wayne State InterVarsity is prohibited from reserving free campus space, advertising on the student activities website, or engaging at official school events.

The Becket Fund, which represents InterVarsity, argues the university’s treatment of the group is inconsistent with its general practices, as it allows fraternities, female athletic clubs and campus cultural organizations to set race-based or sex-based requirements for elected leaders. This disparate treatment, Becket lawyers argue, suggests a negative judgement about religion, which the Supreme Court condemned in its Masterpiece ruling.

Masterpiece was featured again in a petition the high court is currently considering for review. The case, Arlene’s Flowers v. Washington, was occasioned when 72-year-old florist Barronelle Stutzman declined to make a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding in view of her religious beliefs.

The case presents the same First Amendment questions the justices declined to resolve in Masterpiece. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative public interest law practice, represents Stutzman, and also represented Jack Phillips, the Christian baker in Masterpiece. (RELATED: Supremes Lift Order Requiring Trump Administration To Facilitate Abortions For Alien Minors)

As an alternative to full briefing and argument, Stutzman’s lawyers have suggested that the justices remand the case to a lower court for further consideration in light of the Masterpiece ruling. ADF argues Stutzman’s religious beliefs were demeaned in much the same way Phillips’ were when the trial court’s decision in her case compared her views to those of a racist. The fact Washington officials initiated action against her in the first instance without receiving a complaint from an aggrieved customer is, by ADF’s telling, similarly degrading.

ADF also seized on Kennedy’s denunciation of disparate enforcement patterns, in which state officials punish religious proprietors for discrimination while allowing secular business owners to refuse the requests of religious patrons. The Alliance believes this double standard obtains in Washington, noting that the state took practically no punitive action against a Seattle coffee shop owner who ordered a group of pro-life Christians to leave his cafe on ideological grounds in November 2017.

“The state’s treatment of that situation stands in marked contrast to its swift and unprecedented efforts to punish Barronelle in her personal capacity, which threatens to drive her out of business and bankrupt her and her family,” the Stutzman filing reads.

In rebuttal, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson maintained that the trial court did not demean Stutzman’s views. The portion of the ruling ADF identified merely cites a relevant anti-discrimination case explaining the applicable legal principles, which happened to involve racist sentiment.

Kennedy, Ferguson points out, did much the same in his Masterpiece opinion. He cited a 1968 case called Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises to argue that courts generally forbid commercial discrimination against protected classes of people, even for religious reasons. Piggy Park involved a South Carolina businessman who refused service to blacks in his chain of barbecue restaurants, as he opposed integration on religious grounds.

They also reject comparisons to the November 2017 incident with the coffee shop, as is was resolved informally. The state disputes ADF’s account of the conflict, though the Christian activists filmed the encounter.

A decision on the Arlene’s Flowers petition could come as soon as Monday.

Whatever their ambitions, Masterpiece has already worked against the religious right.

The Arizona Court of Appeals became the first court to pronounce upon the constitutionality of anti-discrimination ordinances after Masterpiece on Thursday in another ADF-organized case. The court upheld a Phoenix law prohibiting discrimination against LGBT persons in places of public accommodations, regardless of an individual’s religious beliefs.

The Arizona appellate court cited Kennedy’s opinion to assert that such provisions are generally compatible with the Constitution, while extending legal protection to religious dissenters would stigmatize the gay community.

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