Constitution Prohibits Action Hostile to Religious Beliefs of Citizens
In Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, the Court made clear that the government, if it is to respect the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise, cannot impose regulations that are hostile to the religious beliefs of affected citizens and cannot act in a manner that passes judgment upon or presupposes the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices.
The Free Exercise Clause bars even “subtle departures from neutrality” on matters of religion. Here, that means the Commission was obliged under the Free Exercise Clause to proceed in a manner neutral toward and tolerant of Phillips’ religious beliefs.
Constitution Commits Government to Religious Tolerance
The Constitution “commits government itself to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion that proposals for state intervention stem from animosity to religion or distrust of its practices, all officials must pause to remember their own high duty to the Constitution and to the rights it secures.”
Factors relevant to the assessment of governmental neutrality include
- “the historical background of the decision under challenge,
- the specific series of events leading to the enactment or official policy in question, and
- the legislative or administrative history, including contemporaneous statements made by members of the decision-making body.”
Government Action Here Not Tolerant of Religious Conscience
In view of these factors the record here demonstrates that the Commission’s consideration of Phillips’ case was neither tolerant nor respectful of Phillips’ religious beliefs.
The Commission gave “every appearance,” of adjudicating Phillips’ religious objection based on a negative normative “evaluation of the particular justification” for his objection and the religious grounds for it.
It hardly requires restating that government has no role in deciding or even suggesting whether the religious ground for Phillips’ conscience-based objection is legitimate or illegitimate. On these facts, the Court must draw the inference that Phillips’ religious objection was not considered with the neutrality that the Free Exercise Clause requires.
While the issues here are difficult to resolve, it must be concluded that the State’s interest could have been weighed against Phillips’ sincere religious objections in a way consistent with the requisite religious neutrality that must be strictly observed. The official expressions of hostility to religion in some of the commissioners’ comments—comments that were not disavowed at the Commission or by the State at any point in the proceedings that led to affirmance of the order—were inconsistent with what the Free Exercise Clause requires. The Commission’s disparate consideration of Phillips’ case compared to the cases of the other bakers suggests the same. For these reasons, the order must be set aside.
Court’s Decision Here Narrow
The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market. The judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals is reversed.