After postponing a decision about whether to hear the notorious “cake case” 14 times, the Supreme Court has granted the petition in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
The issue, in this case, is whether Colorado's public accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, violates a cake artist’s First Amendment free speech and free exercise rights.
The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jack C. Phillips, declined to design and make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs. The couple filed a complaint against Masterpiece claiming it violated Colorado's public accommodations law. Masterpiece argued that being required to comply with the law violates Phillips’ free speech and free exercise rights.
The Colorado Court of Appeals rejected both of Masterpiece’s claims.
Masterpiece argued that wedding cakes inherently communicate a celebratory message about marriage and that, by forcing it to make cakes for same-sex weddings, it is being unconstitutionally compelled to express a celebratory message about same-sex marriage that it does not support.
For speech to be protected by the First Amendment it must convey a particularized message. According to the Colorado Court of Appeals: “Masterpiece does not convey a message supporting same-sex marriages merely by abiding by the law and serving its customers equally.”
Regarding Masterpiece’s free exercise of religion claim, the Colorado Court of Appeals applied rational basis analysis to Colorado’s law and “easily conclude[d] that it is rationally related to Colorado’s interest in eliminating discrimination in places of public accommodation.”
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 21 other states have public accommodations laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Numerous local governments have adopted similar ordinances.
In the past three years, lower courts have decided a number of similar cases involving other wedding vendors who did not want to provide services for same-sex weddings (e.g., photographer, florist, venue owner, stationery seller). None of the vendors have won thus far.