The U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday ruling in favor of a Denver-area wedding cake maker is empowering Georgia supporters of “religious liberty” legislation who hope to revive the measure next year.
The justices ruled 7-2 that Colorado officials violated the First Amendment rights of baker Jack Phillips, who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012 because of his Christian beliefs.
But the court side-stepped core legal questions in the case, including whether merchants have the legal right to deny service to gay people because of their faith-based beliefs.
The decision was closely watched in Georgia, where some conservatives are still smarting over Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto in 2016 of a bill that would allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief.”
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, one of two Republican candidates to succeed Deal, said the Supreme Court decision “confirmed what we already knew: The Constitution protects religious exercise and expression.”
“As governor, I will make sure no Georgian ever has to take a case to the Supreme court to defend their religious freedom,” Cagle said.
He and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, his opponent in the July 24 runoff, have each pledged to sign a “religious liberty” measure if it reaches their desk. Kemp, too, touted Monday’s ruling.
“As governor, I’ll stand up to the radical left and politically correct,” said Kemp. “We will never apologize for protecting religious liberty and living out our faith.”
It’s one of the few areas were both split from Deal, who defied conservatives by vetoing the legislation in one of the most monumental decisions of his tenure.
The governor, who did not immediately comment on the ruling, has remained a fierce opponent of the measure, and his administration warned that it could imperil the state’s pursuit of Amazon’s second headquarters and other economic development deals.
The ruling, penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said a Colorado civil rights commission “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.”
Kennedy added, whoever, that broader questions as to whether a business can refuse to serve same-sex couples “must await further elaboration” as other cases wind through the legal system.
‘Next year is the year’
The issue has divided Georgia lawmakers, and energized activists from both parties, for more than four years.
Supporters say it would protect people of faith from government intrusion, as well as strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage. They note that nearly two-dozen other states have similar statutes in place.
Opponents warn it would amount to legalized discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and they point to big-name companies who threatened boycotts if it becomes law.
The issue remains wildly popular with many in Georgia’s grassroots conservative base. After Deal’s veto, a majority of GOP activists in Georgia's congressional districts passed resolutions expressing their "deep disappointment" with the decision, and one group even pushed to “sanction” him.
Brant Frost V, a Coweta County GOP chair and advocate for the legislation, said support for the measure has only ballooned as Republicans hash out their nominee for governor.
“This is an encouraging sign and we’re seeing a serious push by the left get thwarted,” said Frost. “Next year is the year. We have the best chance we’ve ever had, and this Supreme Court ruling didn’t do anything to dampen that.”
The Democratic gubernatorial nominee, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, is staunchly opposed to the measure. She voted against it in the Georgia Legislature, and has pledged to veto any measures that she views as state-sanctioned discrimination or that allow some Georgians to be treated differently under the law.
“Under my leadership, every Georgian will know they can live and work in a state that will treat them with dignity, respect, and allow them to prosper, no matter who they are,” she said.
Jeff Graham, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Georgia Equality, said he hopes the Legislature “will look carefully at the lessons to be learned” from the case to find a way to protect both the religious and LGBT communities.
“This decision, I believe, supports the contention that all people are worthy of protection against overt discrimination,” Graham said at a press conference Monday. “We have a big opportunity in Georgia to lead the country on finding that middle ground where all people can be protected.”
Rev. Dan Matthews Jr., rector at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, said he worried the "religious liberty" argument could turn into a "slippery slope."
"Theologically, the slippery slope for me is when we begin to say ‘I will only have interactions with people I approve of,'" he said. "Give an inch, you wind up giving away everything.”
Cagle was among the proponents who hoped the Supreme Court decision would offer a “uniform national standard” rather than leaving the contentious debate up to the Georgia Legislature.
Unclear at the moment is whether the court’s ruling will resuscitate GOP efforts to advance a federal “religious liberty” bill in Congress.
A previous version of the legislation, which would bar the federal government from penalizing people, groups or businesses that believe marriage should be between one man and one woman, had the support of all 12 of the state’s GOP members of Congress.
Georgia U.S. Reps. Jody Hice, Barry Loudermilk and Rick Allen -- all conservatives -- had pushed for the Supreme Court court to rule in favor of the Colorado baker in a friend of the court filing, as did the Trump administration.
The state's two most liberal congressmen, John Lewis and Hank Johnson, signed onto a brief supporting the gay couple.
AJC reporter Bo Emerson, the Associated Press and Cox Media Group’s Jamie Dupree contributed to this article.
Read the text of the Supreme Court decision here.