Seyfarth Synopsis: In a largely symbolic ruling, in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a cake shop owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple based on his religious beliefs. By limiting its holding to the facts of the case, however, the Court sidestepped an opportunity to delineate the intersection between free expression of religion and LGBT rights. As a result, the decision provides little in the way of guidance to employers regarding the role of free expression of religion in the workplace.

In the highly anticipated decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case closely followed by the media, religious rights advocates, and gay rights advocates alike, the Supreme Court delicately avoided making a decision that could be declared a victory by either side. Instead, the majority emphasized that the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop was limited to the facts of the case and that further clarification as to the boundaries between religious rights and LGBT rights would have to play out in the courts.

The Case

Charlie Craig and David Mullins were looking to celebrate their marriage by purchasing a custom wedding cake at Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Colorado. Jack Phillips, the owner of the bakery refused to make the wedding cake for the couple because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

The couple filed a Charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the “Commission”), claiming that the baker’s refusal was in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which makes it “a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from, or deny to an individual or group because of . . . sexual orientation, . . . the full and equal enjoyment of the goods [and] services” of “any place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public.” The owner of the bakery, however, maintained that the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion protected his refusal to make custom wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

The Commission found in favor of the couple and determined that the actions of the bakery violated Colorado law. Phillips appealed the Commission’s decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Commission’s ruling.

After the Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, Phillips appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals and found the Commission had violated Phillips’ First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.

In its decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the case presented “difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles,” one, the authority of the State “to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services” and two, the “right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment.” While acknowledging the tension between these two principles, the Court did not seek to reconcile them.

Instead, the Court first found the creation of wedding cakes was a “creative” endeavor implicating freedom of expression under the First Amendment, not merely selling a good which might not implicate the First Amendment.

The Court then explained that as Phillips’ refusal to bake of a wedding cake implicated the First Amendment’s freedom of expression and free exercise of religion clauses, the Commission was obligated to weigh the cake shop owner’s First Amendment rights against the rights of the gay couple. Instead of performing this balancing with “the neutrality that the Constitution requires”, the Court found te Commission exhibited hostility toward Phillips’ beliefs throughout the hearing, making disparaging comments about his religious beliefs and treating the cake shop owner’s case differently than other cases addressed by the Commission involving cake shop owners with different beliefs. The Court found that this treatment of Phillips’ case violated the First Amendment as it indicated a hostility to a religion or religious viewpoints.

The Court took great care to underscore that the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop was limited to the facts of that case, stating that “[t]he outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context that this disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

The Takeaway for Employers

Many anticipated that the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop would provide employers and small-business owners with guidance on how to lawfully traverse the landmines that arise when religious beliefs conflict with civil rights statutes. By restricting the decision to the facts, the Court did not provide this guidance.

As such, employers, need not and should not change their EEO or other employment practices, policies, and trainings in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. Masterpiece Cakeshop does not place rights to the free exercise of religion over LGBT rights or other civil rights, and therefore employers should not take action that elevates the right to free exercise of religion within the workplace.