In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U. S. ____ (2018) (June 4, 2018), the US Supreme Court by 7-2 overturned previous decisions against a Christian cake maker, Jack Phillips, who had declined to make a wedding cake for a same sex wedding. While the basis of the decision of the majority is fairly narrow, the outcome is clearly correct, and even in the narrow reasons offered by Justice Kennedy, there are a number of important affirmations which support religious freedom.
In a Federation like Australia, different jurisdictions (States and Territories) may have different rules on what amounts to “discrimination” or “vilification”, and how those things interact with religious freedom. One of the pressing issues here in recent years has been whether there will be a “race to the bottom” in freedom of speech on religious issues, with one jurisdiction in particular, Tasmania, raising deep concerns with a very broad prohibition on causing “offence” related to matters such as sexual orientation.
Today the High Court of Australia, on appeal from NSW, has affirmed the decision of the NSW Court of Appeal that State and Territory “tribunals” (non-judicial panels usually used in discrimination issues) have no jurisdiction to impose penalties on residents of other Australian jurisdictions under their own local laws. The important decision in Burns v Corbett  HCA 15 (18 April 2018) (court-prepared summary available here) is a good outcome, and at the very least will force Australian jurisdictions to consider very carefully whether they want their local law to apply in other parts of the country. If they do, they will be required to give jurisdiction in those cases to their courts, rather than to lower tribunals.
A recent decision by a California Superior Court Judge holds that a bakery cannot be required by discrimination law to make a same sex wedding cake, where the owner has a religious reason for declining to do so. In Department of Fair Employment and Housing v Cathy’s Creations Inc (Cal Sup Ct, Kern Cty; BCV-17-102855; Lampe J, 5 Feb 2018) Judge Lampe refused an injunction against Cathy Miller, proprietor of Tastries Bakery, which would have required her to create a wedding cake for the same sex wedding of Mireya and Eileen Rodriguez-Del Rio. The basis for the decision was the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the judge holding that creating a wedding cake was a constitutionally protected form of “free speech”.
A student Christian group at the University of Iowa has been reinstated as a registered student organisation by a US Federal District Court Judge, after previously having its status revoked by University authorities. The student group, Business Leaders in Christ (“BLinC”), had been penalised because it would not agree to appoint to its leadership a same-sex attracted student, who said that they would not undertake to comply with the group’s commitment to Biblical sexual values. The University claimed that this was a breach of its Policy on Human Rights, forbidding discrimination on the basis of, among other things, sexual orientation. BLinC claimed, however, that the issue was not the student’s orientation, but their express refusal to modify their behaviour to accord with Biblical norms. The case illustrates a number of important issues in this area.
There have been a number of “wedding industry” religious freedom cases arising in the United States and the UK over the last few years. On 28 December 2017 the Oregon Court of Appeals, in Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (CA Or; Dec 28, 2017, — P.3d —-, 2017 WL 6613356; 289 Or App 507 (2017)) upheld a $135,000 fine levied on the Kleins, wedding cake makers, for declining to make a cake for the wedding of Rachel and Laurel Bowmen-Cryer. The case is another example of religious freedom (and, arguably, freedom of speech) being over-ridden in the name of “dignitary harm” to same-sex couples. It is a good example of the issues being presented to the current Ruddock Inquiry into Religious Freedom being conducted in Australia at the moment.
Australia is in the middle of a debate as to the extent to which religious freedom rights should be accommodated in legislation introducing “same sex marriage” (SSM). Those who object to this idea tell us that:
Christian conservatives – following the lead of their counterparts in the United States – seek to use freedom of religion to justify discrimination against members of the LGBTQI community. This agenda is now being pursued under the guise of the debate for a marriage equality bill. (“After the yes vote, let’s not remove one inequality and replace it with another”The Guardian online, 22 Nov 2017)
The word “discrimination” is a notoriously slippery one, and I would like to challenge the view that recognising religion freedom in changing marriage laws amounts to unjustified discrimination.
A recent UK court decision upheld the decision of University authorities to remove a student, Felix Ngole, from a post-graduate Social Work course, because of views he had expressed in a public social media forum about the Bible’s view on homosexuality. In my opinion the decision is a shocking breach of principles governing both religious freedom and freedom of speech, and should be over-turned as soon as possible. For Australian readers, it is also a salutary reminder that when the law on marriage changes, it becomes harder to protect religious and other freedoms.