I am not generally a fan of liberal Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. But after reading the entire transcript of the December 5 oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (in which a Christian baker was found guilty by Colorado of discrimination for declining to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple), I thought one question she asked was especially insightful.

Most of the discussion on Jack Phillips’ free speech claim centered on a question distilled by Justice Stephen Breyer. Baker Jack Phillips argues that his First Amendment right to be free from compelled speech was violated by Colorado’s application of its public accommodations law to him, but Breyer asked, “[W]hat is the line? . . . [W]e want some kind of distinction that will not undermine every civil rights law.”

Kagan elaborated on that concern in a question posed to U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who was arguing in support of Phillips:

JUSTICE KAGAN: General, it -- it seems as though there are kind of three axes on which people are asking you what’s the line? How do we draw the line? So one axis is what we started with, like what about the chef and the florist -

GENERAL FRANCISCO: Speech, non-speech.

JUSTICE KAGAN: -- and -- and, you know, everybody else that participates in a wedding? A second axis is, well, why is this only about gay people? Why isn’t it about race? Why isn’t it about gender? Why isn’t it about people of different religions? So that’s a second axis.

And there’s a third axis, which is why is it just about weddings? You say ceremonies, events. What else counts? Is it the funeral? Is it the Bar Mitzvah or the communion? Is it the anniversary celebration? Is it the birthday celebration?

So there are all three of these that suggest like, whoa, this doesn’t seem like such a small thing.

1. “Speech” vs. “non-speech” in the wedding industry

The core of the argument made by Kristen Waggoner, the Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing Phillips, related to the first “axis” Kagan mentioned. The courts have previously found that under the First Amendment’s free speech protections, not only may the government not punish an individual for speaking his own opinions, but the government also may not compel an individual to communicate a message he disagrees with against his will. Using his talents to create a custom wedding cake is a form of artistic expression which is protected as “speech” under the First Amendment, Waggoner argued. Doing so for a same-sex wedding would constitute a message of endorsement of a homosexual relationship and of same-sex marriage, which violates Jack Phillips’ religious beliefs. Therefore, the state of Colorado may not compel Phillips’ to create such a cake without violating his First Amendment rights.

The justices demanded to know what other vendors providing goods and services for a wedding would or would not enjoy similar free speech protections. What type of commercial conduct constitutes “speech,” and what is “non-speech,” as Francisco put it? Waggoner suggested that the exemption would apply to a baker, florist, or calligrapher creating invitations; but might not apply to a hair stylist or makeup artist (more on that later).

Yet I think Kagan’s other two “axes” (plural of “axis,” not “ax”) are also significant. Unlike Kagan, however, I think they make the case easier to decide, not harder.

2. “Why is this only about gay people?”

The second axis of line-drawing has to do with any distinctions between various protected categories. Is there a difference between “discrimination” that is based on sexual orientation (“gay people”), and that based on race, sex, or religion? Attorneys on the other side and the more liberal justices hammered on the race analogy—if we allow a baker to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, can he also refuse to bake a cake for a black child’s birthday?

Now, before discussing the question of whether “discrimination” based on “sexual orientation” is the same as racial discrimination, let me state my own view that refusing to participate in a same-sex wedding does not constitute discrimination based on “sexual orientation” at all. Phillips’ principal objection stems primarily from his religious beliefs about the definition of marriage (that it is inherently a union of one man and one woman) and his beliefs about the appropriate boundaries of sexual conduct (that it should only take place in the context of a marriage so defined). This has nothing inherently to do with the “sexual orientation” of the individuals involved.

Phillips would bake a cake for a wedding of two people who self-identify as homosexual—if they were of the opposite sex. And he would not bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, even if the individuals involved identified as heterosexual. If those examples sound absurd, it is only because in our time we have a cultural assumption that an indispensable purpose of marriage is the gratification of sexual desires. Yet that is an assumption about marriage that has by no means been universal in all times and all cultures, and the Court need not adopt it as a legal assumption today.

The Colorado public accommodations non-discrimination law that Phillips was charged with violating makes no distinctions among its protected categories. But that is not the legal question at issue. Phillips is asserting a claim under the U.S. Constitution, which (if successful) would override a state statute. The question is whether the “discrimination” he is accused of gives the government a compelling interest in overriding that federal constitutional claim. Under federal court precedents, there is a distinction to be made between race and sexual orientation. Classifications of individuals on the basis of race are subject to “strict scrutiny,” which means that they can very rarely be justified. The Supreme Court has never said that classifications based on “sexual orientation” are subject to the same high level of scrutiny.

I have argued elsewhere that the reason classifications based on race are subjected to the highest scrutiny is because race is, indisputably, a characteristic that is inborn, involuntary, immutable, innocuous, and in the Constitution. “Sexual orientation” does not meet the same criteria. In fact, its definition is not entirely clear, since depending on the context, it may refer to a person’s sexual attractions, their sexual behavior, or their self-identification, or some combination of the three. The three aspects of sexual orientation are also not always consistent in one individual at one time, or over the life course. A person’s sexual attractions may indeed be involuntary (I am not saying people “choose to be gay,” if “being gay” is defined based on attractions alone). However, a person’s sexual behavior and self-identification do not meet any of the criteria which justify strict scrutiny of racial classifications. For those who disapprove of homosexuality, it is almost entirely the conduct—not the attractions or even the self-identification—which is seen as problematic.

I realize that in a 2010 case (Christian Legal Society v. Martinez), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the 5-4 majority, “Our decisions have declined to distinguish between status and conduct in this context.” The “context” she referred to was a sexual orientation classification. (In that case, the University of California’s law school had denied recognition to a Christian student organization because they did not permit people who engaged in “unrepentant homosexual conduct” to serve in leadership positions.) “CLS contends that it does not exclude individuals because of sexual orientation,” reported Ginsburg, “but rather ‘on the basis of a conjunction of conduct and the belief that the conduct is not wrong.’” An analysis in the New York Times described Ginsburg’s sentence rejecting the distinction between “status and conduct” as a “time bomb” which could explode with broader implications in later cases (as it did in the later cases involving the definition of marriage).

Justice Anthony Kennedy himself, however (despite having been the decisive vote in the decisions striking down both federal and state definitions of marriage as the union of a man and a woman), seemed to hint that he might be willing to defuse the status-conduct “time bomb” in the context of the Masterpiece case. Here is part of an exchange with David D. Cole, the attorney representing the same-sex couple, after Cole repeatedly asserted that Jack Phillips’ action was “identity discrimination”:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, but this whole concept of identity is a slightly—suppose he says: Look, I have nothing against—against gay people. He says but I just don’t think they should have a marriage because that’s contrary to my beliefs. It’s not –

MR. COLE: Yeah.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: It’s not their identity; it’s what they're doing.

MR. COLE: Yeah.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: I think it’s -- your identity thing is just too facile. [Emphasis added.]

Whether the court has distinguished between homosexual conduct and an “identity” or “status” as “gay” in prior decisions or not, the distinction clearly exists in the real world, and it makes sexual orientation different from race (or sex). It would be salutary for the Court to acknowledge that now.

3. “Why is it just about weddings?”

The third axis of line-drawing posited by Kagan has to do with the type of events which, hypothetically at least, might trigger a religious objection and therefore a religious or free-speech exception to anti-discrimination laws.

However, it is clear that the liberty Phillips is seeking in this case has specifically and narrowly to do with weddings because of the nature of that event. He and his attorneys have repeatedly made clear that Jack Phillips regularly serves customers who openly self-identify as gay. His policy of not creating custom cakes for same-sex weddings therefore bears no resemblance to racially segregated businesses in the Jim Crow south, which either did not serve black customers at all, or would only serve them in physically segregated facilities.

Phillips’ attorney Kristen Waggoner described his objection regarding weddings most succinctly in her final summation, when she said this:

A wedding cake expresses an inherent message that is that the union is a marriage and is to be celebrated, and that message violates Mr. Phillips's religious convictions.

This single sentence makes two distinct points. The “message . . . that [a same-sex] union is a marriage . . . violates Mr. Phillips’s religious convictions” (because his Christian faith teaches him that “marriage” can only be defined as the union of a man and a woman). In addition, the “message . . . that [a homosexual] union . . . is to be celebrated” also “violates Mr. Phillips’s religious convictions” (because his Christian faith teaches that homosexual relationships are sinful—that is, always contrary to the will of God).

Neither of these objections, however, would apply to providing baked goods for a birthday celebration or a funeral reception for someone who identifies as gay, because neither a birthday nor a funeral sends “an inherent message” that marriage can be between people of the same sex, nor that sexual relations between people of the same sex are to be celebrated. Only a wedding (and potentially a wedding-related event, such as a shower or anniversary) sends that particular, and particularly objectionable, message.

In fact, Solicitor General Noel Francisco seemed to me to at least hint at an argument for an even broader exemption than what Phillips’ own attorney, Kristen Waggoner, was requesting. Waggoner argued narrowly that the specific act of creating a custom wedding cake was a form of creative, artistic expression that merits free speech protection. Francisco, however, made repeated reference (seven times, by my count) to the wedding itself as an “expressive event.” This, it seems to me, would suggest that any participation in the celebration of a same-sex wedding—even if it involves less creative artistry than the creation of a custom-made cake—could constitute implicit endorsement of the message in support of same-sex marriage and in support of homosexual unions that is inherent in the event itself.

The Three-Dimensional Solution

Justice Kagan’s concern was that drawing lines too broadly on all three axes she described would result in exceptions that would completely swallow the rule of Colorado’s public accommodation non-discrimination law. If we allow exceptions for bakers, what about other vendors? If we allow exceptions for sexual orientation, what about other protected categories? And if we allow exceptions for weddings, what about other events? If broad exemptions are granted in all three areas, then, as she said, “whoa, this doesn't seem like such a small thing.”

I believe, however, that there are sound reasons for narrowing the exemption regarding protected categories only to sexual orientation—logically, because it involves primarily conduct, and legally, because it is not subject to strict scrutiny and is never mentioned in the text of the Constitution. As noted above, there are also reasonable grounds for treating a wedding differently from other events.

With the lines drawn narrowly with respect to those categories, I think there would be room for the line regarding which vendors can claim free speech protection to be drawn a bit more broadly. I would like to see the Supreme Court adopt Solicitor General Francisco’s view of a wedding itself as an “expressive event”—and therefore extend the protection against “compelled speech” to any vendor who provides wedding services—whether baker, florist, or photographer, or calligrapher; or even chef, hair stylist or makeup artist.

Such a decision would leave Colorado’s non-discrimination law intact, while still recognizing the elevated threat to freedom of conscience that arises in the narrow and unique situation of participation in celebrating a same-sex wedding.