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3 Conscience Cases Before the Supreme Court

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October 31, 2017, marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which birthed freedom of conscience on religious matters. Half a millennium later, the struggle to protect individual religious consciences continues.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear three cases that may determine whether citizens who hold traditional religious beliefs regarding marriage and human sexuality will be allowed to live according to their religious consciences.

1. Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

In this case, the Court will decide whether the First Amendment is violated when a state punishes a citizen for refusing, for reasons of religious conscience, to create a cake that celebrates a same-sex wedding. Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, declined to create a cake for a same-sex wedding because he believes it would be sinful to participate in celebrating a same-sex wedding. Despite the fact that another bakery readily created the cake the couple wanted, they brought a sexual-orientation-discrimination claim against Phillips. A state civil rights commission found Jack Phillips had violated Colorado law, and prohibited him from creating cakes for any wedding unless he also created cakes for same-sex weddings.

Phillips appealed to Colorado’s appellate court, which upheld the commission’s ruling, and the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, granted review of his free speech and free exercise claims with oral argument to be heard December 5th.

2. Arlene’s Flowers v. State of Washington

Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers, sold flowers to a same-sex couple for many years but declined to arrange flowers for their wedding. The Washington state attorney general initiated proceedings against her, after which the ACLU brought a lawsuit against Stutzman on behalf of the couple. A state trial court found she violated the state law prohibiting sexual-orientation discrimination and awarded fines, damages, and attorney’s fees against her. The state supreme court agreed. Stutzman stands to lose her business and her home because the attorney’s fees are likely to be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Stutzman has filed a petition for review in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that it be heard alongside Masterpiece Cakeshop.

3. Neely v. Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct & Ethics

A third case raises the question of whether a judge may be punished by the government for refusing to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, despite the judge’s belief that such marriages are prohibited by God.

Judge Neely held two judicial positions—a local judgeship in which she was not authorized to perform weddings for anyone and a part-time state magistrate position in which she performed weddings for couples who independently contacted and paid her. Wyoming magistrates may decline to perform a wedding for a variety of reasons.

In 2015, after same-sex marriage became legal in Wyoming, a local newspaper reporter called Judge Neely to ask whether she was “excited” about performing same-sex marriages. Judge Neely responded that her religious beliefs would not allow her to so but that other magistrates were willing. Even though no same-sex couple had asked Judge Neely, and numerous other magistrates were willing to perform same-sex weddings, the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct & Ethics brought charges against her and recommended she be removed from both judicial positions.

On appeal, the Wyoming Supreme Court reduced her punishment to a reprimand but required her to stop performing any weddings unless she performed same-sex ones. Judge Neely has filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Who Controls Our Conscience?

Whether Phillips should create a cake is between him and his God. Likewise, whether Stutzman should create a floral arrangement is between her and her God, as is Judge Neely’s decision whether to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony.

These Christians sincerely believe God requires them not to perform or celebrate a same-sex wedding. Meanwhile other Christians confidently, even carelessly, claim people like Phillips, Stutzman, and Neely should set aside their deeply held beliefs.

But surely all Christians should be able to respect fellow Christians who believe they would be disobeying God if they participated in a same-sex wedding. Consider an analogous situation in the early church when the Christians in Corinth disagreed over whether a Christian could eat meat sacrificed to idols. Paul instructed the Christians who could eat meat in good conscience to “be careful that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block” to those whose consciences didn’t allow it (1 Cor. 8:9). Might it even be judgmental to criticize other Christians for refusing to make a cake or floral arrangement or perform a wedding ceremony—especially when one is not privy to how God has responded to their prayers for guidance?

When Jack Phillips’s case is heard in a few weeks, the public conversation will inevitably lead to many private conversations between Christians and their friends about their faith in Jesus. Christians who say “I would bake the cake” must be prepared to continue the conversation by explaining why Jesus has authority to command how we live. Likewise, Christians who say “I would not bake the cake” must be ready to explain Jesus’s boundless grace toward every sinner, beginning with themselves.

Here They Stand

Regardless of the response, though, it is wrong to dismiss those who, like Martin Luther 500 years ago, choose their conscience over popular opinion. We should not remain silent as our culture condemns Christians who cannot in good conscience do what the crowd demands. The temptation to abandon believers like Phillips, Stutzman, and Neely to their fates will be great. But as God’s people we must decide now to resist that easy path, and instead prepare to give a defense of the human right to live according to religious conscience.

The correct spiritual course also aligns with the correct legal course. For example, the First Amendment requires that we defend Phillips’s ability to live according to what he understands God to require. The First Amendment’s protection of religious conscience does not turn on whether anyone else agrees with his decision. Indeed, the First Amendment particularly protects minority religious dissenters from government coercion.

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation and its emphasis on the supremacy of individual conscience in religious matters—an emphasis the Founders embedded in the very First Amendment—it is fitting that the Court yet again protect the foundational right of all citizens to live according to their religious consciences.

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