In his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell tries but fails to describe what little freedom citizens have under the constant surveillance of the government of Oceania.
“Nothing was your own,” he writes in chapter two, “except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” Yet by the end of the novel, he is proven wrong. Under physical and mental torture, the story's protagonist is forced to give up those few cubic centimeters. He confesses to crimes against the state that he has not committed and actually believes sincerely that he did indeed commit them.
The state has complete — total, as in totalitarian — power over his mind. It can make him not only say that two and two make five, but force him to actually believe it.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a case about a cake artist in Colorado. Jack Phillips is being persecuted for harboring private beliefs insufficiently enthusiastic about gay marriage.
Phillips made custom cakes to order and served any customer, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. But there were some things he wouldn’t do. One was to subscribe to the cause of same-sex marriage, to spread a message about that newfangled institution that he believed to be false. He would not say gay marriage is equal to sacramental matrimony between a man and a woman.
So he refused to bake a cake expressly celebrating gay marriage. And this refusal to join the cheering got him into trouble with something called the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which effectively barred Phillips from practicing his art in accord with conscience. The commission is thus a powerful force for another Orwellian concept, Newspeak, the language that calls everything (the Ministry of Truth, etc.) by the name that least fits it. Colorado's commission is now an active force against the civil rights of the state's inhabitants. Phillips may no longer make wedding cakes on his own terms. He has lost about 40 percent of his family income.
This case is not a hard one to judge. We don’t put musicians out of business for refusing to play concerts in protest of local and state laws they judge to be unjust. We don’t use state compulsion against news organizations that refuse ads they judge to be misleading or demeaning. We wouldn’t take dressmakers to court because they refuse to glorify or normalize President Trump by outfitting his family.
Phillips refused to put his artistry to work to promote what Christian teaching says is a sin. But the secular orthodoxy of overweening, modern egalitarianism decided, like a 21st-century Inquisition, that he must be punished until he changed his mind.
If the Supreme Court decides in favor of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, it will buttress state power at the expense of the Bill of Rights. It would endorse coercion to force people to pretend to believe what they understand to be false. This would shatter the First Amendment. It would institutionalize a violent struggle, which cannot end, in which might decides what is right, in which the powerful can use the law to subjugate the weak.
Instead, the justices can and should say loudly and clearly that states may not sit in judgment on their citizens’ beliefs about right and wrong; that states may not, on the basis of those judgments, require people to become complicit in that which they believe to be immoral, under penalty of law.
The unwillingness to use coercion in this manner, to force others’ minds with the controlled violence of the state, is what consistently separated America from every tyranny of the 20th century. It must not be tolerated in American law in the 21st.