The Supreme Court Takes the (Wedding) Cake

The United States Supreme Court has ruled against a gay couple in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for their wedding in the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  But lest people think that the Supreme Court was ruling on whether a business can refuse to provide goods or services to an individual based upon their sexual orientation, or based on religious objections, it was not.  That decision will surely have its day.

The Supreme Court ‘s ruling was limited to the actions of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in which it ruled against baker Jack Phillips. This case was brought by same sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, who had gone to the suburban Denver Colorado Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a custom wedding cake for their upcoming wedding.   Baker Jack Phillips told the couple he would not create a cake for their same sex wedding because of his religious belief but told the couple that they could purchase pre-made products.   According to Mr. Phillips, baking a custom-made cake for a same sex couple interfered with his Christian beliefs.

The couple complained to the Colorado Commission in 2012 arguing that the baker had violated public accommodation law by discriminating against them on the basis of their sexual orientation under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.  The Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation discrimination in a place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services to the public.  After holding formal hearings, the state administrative law judge rejected the baker’s First Amendment claim that it was a violation of his right to the free exercise of religion. Mr. Phillips felt that he would be compelled to create a cake that would require him to utilize his artistic talents to express a message that he disagreed with, on the basis of his religion.  The Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

The Supreme Court said that the Commission in ruling against Phillips, did so based on an anti-religious bias and therefore, violated Phillips’ rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.  When the Supreme Court heard the arguments late last year, Justice Kennedy was perturbed by some of the comments he heard from some of the commission members, that appeared to be “neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.”  In his opinion Justice Kennedy wrote that “[t]he commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.” In reviewing the record of the Commission, Justice Kennedy wrote that the Commission did not consider the baker’s religious objection with the neutrality required by the Free Exercise Clause and that Colorado’s interest in prohibiting discrimination should have been weighed against the baker’s sincere religious objections in the strict observance of religious neutrality.

In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy said the issue “must await further elaboration,”  and in all likelihood, re-litigation of this issue will return to the lower courts.  Federal law does not specifically prohibit discrimination against gay people, however there are more than 20 states that have enacted such laws.