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Religion Versus Sexual Orientation: The Supreme Court Punts in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

07/19/2018

In July 2012, David Mullins and Charlie Craig got married in Massachusetts and planned a celebration in their home state of Colorado. At that time, marriage between same-sex couples was not yet legal in Colorado, nor had the U.S. Supreme Court extended same-sex marriage rights on a nationwide basis.

Mullins, Craig, and Craig’s mother went to Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado to purchase a cake for the festivities. Upon learning that the cake was intended for a same-sex wedding celebration, the owner of the bakery, Jack Phillips, told them that he would not sell them a wedding cake, but offered to sell them some baked goods not specifically intended for a wedding. 

The following day, Craig’s mother called the bakery back to ask why the owner would not sell her son a wedding cake. Phillips indicated that it was against his religious beliefs, as he believed marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Masterpiece had refused to sell cakes and cupcakes previously for other same-sex weddings. Another bakery ultimately donated a wedding cake decorated with rainbow layers to Mullins and Craig. 

Mullins and Craig filed a charge of discrimination with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging sexual orientation discrimination in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA). CADA prohibits businesses which are open to the public from refusing to serve customers based upon sexual orientation and a number of other protected categories.  An administrative judge heard the case and ruled in the couple’s favor, ordered Masterpiece Cakeshop to start designing and selling wedding cakes for same-sex unions; take actions to train its staff about CADA’s requirement to sell all goods to any customer regardless of sexual orientation; and for two years to file quarterly reports with the state outlining the steps the business takes to comply. The Commission approved the judge’s order, as did the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Colorado Supreme Court declined to look at the case, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to issue a final ruling on the matter.  

In a 7-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to consider the First Amendment freedom of religion rights of the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop when it held that he was legally required to bake and sell a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. However, contrary to what some members of the press or the public are saying, the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is not particularly helpful to either side in cases such as these.  The decision does not create any sort of right for businesses or employers to freely discriminate against customers, guests or employees due to their sexual orientation. Instead, this narrow decision is more of a criticism of the Colorado commission that expressed impermissible hostility toward the baker’s religious beliefs when ruling on his case.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who handed down the 7-2 ruling in the case just days before his unexpected announcement that he will retire from the Court at the end of this month, wrote in the decision’s most important paragraph:

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.

What this means, in short, is that the Supreme Court has punted on the broader issues involved, narrowing its ruling to the specific circumstances of this individual case. The Supreme Court decision should not be interpreted as giving businesses carte blanche power to do what Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, did. Any business open to the public must recognize that this decision does not grant them the right to treat people differently because of their sexual orientation.


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Debra E. Schwartz