WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court sided Monday with a Christian baker in Colorado who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding on grounds doing so would violate his religious beliefs.
The narrow, 7-2 decision in the closely watched case found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated the First Amendment rights to freedom of religion when it ruled against Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo.
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that the commission had been openly hostile to Phillips’ religious beliefs, violating his First Amendment rights.
But Kennedy made clear the decision turned on that hostility, and the ruling does not resolve the broader question of whether businesses can deny services to gay people based on religious objections.
Kennedy said the court grappled with two key issues: “the authority of a State and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish
to be, married but who face discrimination” when they seek goods and services and “the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment.”
The opinion made clear the decision turned on how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission handled the case in 2014.
“The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here,” Kennedy wrote. “The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”
Some commissioners, Kennedy said, had “disparaged Phillips’ faith as ‘despicable'” and “characterized it as merely rhetorical,” and one commissioner had compared Phillips’ “sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.”
“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,” Kennedy wrote.
No commissioners objected to the comments, nor were they mentioned in state court rulings or disavowed in Supreme Court briefs supporting the commission, Kennedy wrote.
‘Further elaboration in the courts’ needed
Kennedy’s opinion, however, narrowed the scope of the decision. “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,” he wrote.
The same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, had filed a discrimination complaint with the commission after Phillips refused to bake a cake for their wedding in 2012 because, he said, doing so would violate his religious beliefs that gay marriage is immoral. Craig and Mullins had married in Massachusetts, where gay marriage was legal at the time, and asked Phillips to bake the cake for their reception in Colorado.
Kennedy pointed out that Colorado did not recognize same-sex marriage at the time, and Phillips refused to bake the cake for the couple about three years before the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. The justice also noted Phillips had argued he would provide other baked goods to gay customers but viewed relying on his “artistic talents” to create a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage as an endorsement of a practice that conflicted with his religious beliefs.
(See related story: Gay couple in SCOTUS same-sex wedding cake case take solace in ruling’s narrow scope)
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented in the Supreme Court decision, saying they would have upheld the state commission’s ruling that Phillips discriminated against the same-sex couple.
In their dissent, Ginsburg and Sotomayor said they agreed with much of the majority decision, including its conclusion that “Colorado law can protect gay persons … in acquiring whatever products and services they choose on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public.”
But Ginsburg wrote that the words of one or two of the commission’s seven members did not justify the ruling that Phillips violated the same-sex couple’s rights.
“What matters is that Phillips would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple,” Ginsburg wrote.
After the state civil rights commission ruled in favor of Mullins and Craig, Phillips appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which affirmed the commission’s decision.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which has garnered intense international attention, drew swift reactions.
The same-sex couple, Craig and Mullins, said in a joint statement: “Today’s decision means our fight against discrimination and unfair treatment will continue. We have always believed that in America, you should not be turned away from a business open to the public because of who you are. …. No one should have to face the shame, embarrassment, and humiliation of being told ‘we don’t serve your kind here’ that we faced, and we will continue fighting until no one does.”
ACLU cites narrow scope of decision
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the couple in its legal fight, pointed to the narrow scope of the decision.
“The court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision based on concerns unique to the case but reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people.” said Louise Melling, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.
An attorney representing Phillips praised the decision.
“Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society, yet the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage,” said Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel at the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement. “The court was right to condemn that.”
Nationwide, florists, bakers, photographers, videographers and others have claimed that providing wedding services to same-sex couples violates their constitutional rights. But courts have consistently rejected the claims.
But one of those cases could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Barronelle Stutzman, a 72-year-old grandmother and florist, asked the high court last July to review a unanimous decision by the Washington Supreme Court that she violated state anti-discrimination law by refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex couple’s wedding because of her religious objections.
The U.S. Supreme Court is to review the petition at its conference Thursday.