Oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court took place today in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which involves the rights of a Christian baker who was punished by the State of Colorado for refusing on religious grounds to bake and design a wedding cake for the “marriage” of two men.

A particularly noteworthy comment came from Justice Anthony Kennedy, who told a lawyer for the state that “tolerance is essential in a free society, but it’s important for tolerance to work in both directions.”

“It seems to me,” Justice Kennedy said, “the state has been neither tolerant or respectful” of the baker’s views.

The Justice also quoted from the remarks of one commissioner on the state civil rights panel that ruled against the baker, who called the cake shop owner’s position “despicable,” citing that inflammatory characterization as evidence of “hostility to religion.”

Justice Kennedy, who has written major rulings in favor of gay rights, is widely believed to be the key vote in this case. His concern about Colorado’s denigration of the baker’s religious beliefs reflects an important point of the amicus curiae brief filed by Agudath Israel of America in the case.

Authored by Washington-based attorney Jeffrey Zuckerman, the Agudath Israel brief points out that the constitutional protection for free exercise of religion has been diluted in recent years by a number of court rulings that have severely limited its scope. Colorado should not be allowed, the brief contends, “to punish a religious believer because he adhered to his core religious beliefs by refusing to do something that was anathema to him,”

“American society stands at a crossroads,” commented Rabbi David Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president. “The outcome of this case could well determine whether the United States remains faithful to the Founding Fathers’ unwavering commitment to the religious freedom of its people, or whether it reverses course and relegates religious practitioners to the ranks of second-class citizenry.”