by Lisa Soronen, executive director, State and Local Legal Center
In a 7-to-2 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court reversed a ruling against the owner of a bakery who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs. The court concluded the cake maker was entitled to but did not experience a “neutral decisionmaker who [gave] full and fair consideration to his religious objection.” The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting Colorado.
Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins filed a complaint against Masterpiece Cakeshop claiming it violated Colorado's public accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, when it refused to create a wedding cake for them. The cake shop owner Jack Phillips explained: “To create a wedding cake for an event that celebrates something that directly goes against the teachings of the Bible, would have been a personal endorsement and participation in the ceremony and relationship that they were entering into.”
Before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals, Masterpiece argued that being required to create cakes for same-sex weddings violates Phillips’ First Amendment free speech and free exercise rights. Phillips lost in both venues.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, ruled in favor of Masterpiece, concluding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission acted with hostility toward religion “inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied . . . neutral[ly] toward religion.”
Specifically, a number of commissioners made anti-religion remarks at hearings, including that faith is “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use.” Also, on at least three other occasions, the commission allowed bakers to refuse to create cakes conveying disapproval of same-sex marriage, along with religious text because the cake makers deemed these messages offensive. According to the court: “A principled rationale for the difference in treatment of these two instances cannot be based on the government’s own assessment of offensiveness. The Colorado court’s attempt to account for the difference in treatment elevates one view of what is offensive over another and itself sends a signal of official disapproval of Phillips’ religious beliefs.”
The Supreme Court didn’t rule that Phillips had a First Amendment free speech or free exercise of religion right to not make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The Court also didn’t address the argument made by the SLLC (and others) that the court should not create an exception to Colorado’s public accommodations law for wedding businesses. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 21 other states have public accommodations laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. The SLLC brief points out that more than 100 local governments in 38 states have adopted ordinances protecting residents from sexual-orientation discrimination in public accommodations.
The court also didn’t offer any insight as to how it would have decided this case had the commissioners not demonstrated a bias against religion or how similar, future cases should be decided. Justice Kennedy concluded by simply stating: “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.”
Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented. Justice Ginsburg began her opinion by noting she agreed with much of the court’s opinion. She went on to say that the different outcomes for the other three cake makers “do not evidence hostility to religion of the kind we have previously held to signal a free-exercise violation, nor do the comments by one or two members of one of the four decision-making entities considering this case justify reversing the judgment below.”
The National League of Cities, the International City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association joined the SLLC brief, which was written by Bruce La Pierre, Washington University School of Law Appellate Clinic, and Brian Walsh, Bryan Cave.
Supreme Court’s “Cake Case” Will Affect State and Local Governments. This 2017 blog post looks at the cake case in the context of how it could have impacted state and local governments.
Supreme Court Rules against Employer in Religious Accommodation Case. In a 2015 blog post, the Supreme Court decided another case involving religious accommodation.
Supreme Court Declines to Decide (Most of) Disability Arrest Case. In another 2015 blog post, the decision by the court is analyzed regarding the applicability of the Americans with Disabilities act to arrestees.