In a narrow ruling on June 4, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a couple celebrating a same-sex wedding on the basis of his religious opposition to same-sex marriages. (Same-sex marriages were not legal in Colorado at the time.) After the baker rebuffed the couple in 2012, they filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission pursuant to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in a “place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public.”

The Commission ultimately referred the case for a formal hearing before a state Administrative Law Judge who ruled in the couple’s favor. The ALJ rejected the baker’s First Amendment claim that requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech. The baker argued that compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed would violate his right to the free exercise of religion. Both the Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ’s finding. The baker sought review of the decision and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the Commission’s order violated the Constitution.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court held 7-2 that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the Free Exercise Clause because it displayed anti-religious bias when it rejected the baker’s religious justification for refusing to bake the cake. The decision relies heavily on the specific facts of the case and the Court’s finding that the Commission demonstrated clear and impermissible hostility toward the baker’s religious beliefs. For example, the Commission referred to his faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric.” The majority concluded that the “Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.”

By focusing on the Commission’s animus, the Court ducked the bigger question concerning whether religious beliefs must give way to state anti-discrimination laws. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said:

The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these 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.”

Takeaways

  • Because the ruling is narrow and fact-specific, Masterpiece may not have huge implications. And, as we’ve noted previously, courts are tending to be more willing to extend protections to the LGBTQ community — not less. (See here and here.)
  • Despite ruling in the baker’s favor, the decision includes language protective of same-sex couples, emphasizing that “gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth” and advising the “exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts.”
  • The Court recognized that “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views” but cautioned that it “is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”
  • In the end, questions still linger on how to ultimately balance civil rights and religious freedoms when the two conflict.