Last summer, in the days after the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop on the narrow grounds that Colorado had violated Jack Phillips’s religious-liberty rights by specifically disparaging his religious beliefs, a bit of a skirmish broke out among conservative lawyers. How important was the ruling? Did it have any lasting precedential effect?
For those who don’t recall, the Supreme Court ruled for Phillips in large part because a commissioner of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission called Phillips’s claim that he enjoyed a religious-freedom right not to be forced to design a custom cake for a gay wedding a “despicable piece of rhetoric.” The commissioner also denigrated religious-liberty arguments as being used to justify slavery and the Holocaust.
While all agreed that it would have been preferable had the court simply ruled that creative professionals could not be required to produce art that conflicted with their sincerely held beliefs, the question was whether Justice Anthony Kennedy’s strong condemnation of anti-religious bigotry would resonate beyond the specific facts of the case. For example, what would happen if, in a different case, state officials called faithful Christians who seek to protect the religious freedom of Catholic adoption agencies “hate-mongers”?
In the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan, it turns out that such rhetoric has cost the state a crucial court ruling, granted a Catholic adoption agency a vital victory, and demonstrated — once again — that anti-religious bigotry can (and should) carry substantial legal costs.
The case is called Buck v. Gordon. My friends at Becket represent St. Vincent Catholic Charities, a former foster child, and the adoptive parents of five special-needs kids. The facts are relatively complicated, but here’s the short version: St. Vincent upholds Catholic teaching by referring same-sex and unmarried families who seek foster and adoption recommendations and endorsements to agencies that have no objection to providing those services. There is no evidence that St. Vincent has prevented any legally qualified family from adopting or fostering a child. In fact, same-sex couples “certified through different agencies” have been able to adopt children in St. Vincent’s care.
In 2015 the state of Michigan passed a statute specifically designed to protect the religious liberty of private, religious adoption agencies. In 2018, however, Dana Nessel, a Democratic attorney general, took office. During her campaign, she declared that she would not defend the 2015 law in court, stating that its “only purpose” was “discriminatory animus.” She also described proponents of the law as “hate-mongers,” and the court noted that she believed proponents of the law “disliked gay people more than they cared about the constitution.”
Then, in 2019, the attorney general reached a legal settlement in pending litigation with the ACLU that essentially gutted the Michigan law, implementing a definitive requirement that religious agencies provide recommendations and endorsement to same-sex couples and banning referrals. The plaintiffs sued, seeking to enjoin the relevant terms of the settlement, and yesterday Judge Robert Jonker (a Bush appointee) granted their motion for a preliminary injunction.
His reasoning was simple. There was ample evidence from the record that the state of Michigan reversed its policy protecting religious freedom because it was motivated by hostility to the plaintiffs’ faith. Because Michigan’s targeted St. Vincent’s faith, its 2019 settlement agreement couldn’t be truly considered a “neutral” law of “general applicability” that would grant the state a high degree of deference in enforcement.
Instead, the state’s targeting led to strict scrutiny. Here’s Judge Jonker:
Defendant Nessel made St. Vincent’s belief and practice a campaign issue by calling it hate. She made the 2015 statute a campaign issue by contending that the only purpose of the statute is discriminatory animus. After Defendant Nessel took office, the State pivoted 180 degrees. . . . The State also threatened to terminate its contracts with St. Vincent. The Summary Statement’s conclusion – that if an agency accepts even one MDHHS child referral for case management or adoption services, the agency forfeits completely the right to refer new parental applicants to other agencies based on its sincerely held religious beliefs – is at odds with the language of the contracts, with the 2015 law, and with established State practice. Moreover, it actually undermines the State’s stated goals of preventing discriminatory conduct and maximizing available placements for children.
The last point is key. As stated above, there was no evidence that St. Vincent prevented any qualified couple from adopting. In fact, if the state forced St. Vincent’s to choose between upholding the teachings of its faith or maintaining its contractual relationship with the state, then it risked shrinking the available foster or adoption options in the state of Michigan. The state demonstrated that it was more interested in taking punitive action against people of faith than it was in maintaining broader access to foster and adoption services for its most vulnerable citizens.
The judge rightly called the state’s actions a “targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief.” Once again, Masterpiece Cakeshop pays religious-liberty dividends. Once again, a court declares — in no uncertain terms — that in the conflict between private faith and public bigotry, religious liberty will prevail.