Cake Maker Prevails but Not as Expected: SCOTUS Decision Hinges on Freedom of Religion

Gay Wedding Cake

On June 4, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in favor of the religious rights of a Colorado baker. The baker, Jack Phillips, refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding celebration because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage. This case garnered widespread attention because the parties were both arguing key civil rights issues: discrimination versus freedom of religion.

However, SCOTUS’s decision took an unexpected turn when it focused on Phillips’ treatment by the Colorado Commission on Civil Rights (commission) and its “clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating [the baker’s] objection.”

What Happened?

In this case, Phillips refused to make a same-sex wedding cake because it “would be equivalent to participating in a celebration that is contrary to his own most deeply held beliefs.” Consequently, the same-sex couple who requested the cake filed a charge with the commission under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA). CADA prohibits Colorado businesses engaged in any sales to the public, and any place offering services to the public, from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

The case proceeded through the standard legal process; however, according to the majority opinion, the law and its protections were compromised when the case reached the commission. The majority found that the commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the state’s duty under the First Amendment to not base laws or regulations on a hostility to religion or a religious viewpoint. Specifically, the opinion points to the commission’s impermissible acts of hostility, stating that it held public hearings that endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain. The court also discussed the commission’s disparaging comments about Phillips’ religious faith, the differing treatment of Phillips as opposed to parties in similar cases involving religious beliefs, and the commission’s disfavoring of the religious basis of Phillips’ objection.

However, the SCOTUS decision did not rule on the same-sex couple’s allegations of sexual orientation discrimination in violation of CADA. Rather, its decision was narrowly tailored to focus on the commission’s decision-making process and Phillips’ First Amendment right that laws be applied neutrally toward religion.

Of note, the majority opinion (along with Justice Ginsberg’s dissent) reinforced the laws protecting against discrimination. For example, in concurring with the majority, Justice Kagan wrote, “[i]t is a general rule that [religious and philosophical] objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.” However, Kagan went on to say that “[i]n upholding that principle, state actors cannot show hostility to religious views; rather, they must give those views ‘neutral and respectful consideration’ . . . and [the commission] did not satisfy this obligation.”

Now What?

While both sides of the argument were looking for an outcome that only validated their cause, be it a statement by the highest court for the LGBTQI community or for business owners and their religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage, the court did not completely satisfy the agenda of either party.

Attorneys for both parties claimed a win. However, the end result is that the law is the law: Employers cannot deny equal access to goods and services under the general public accommodations law AND religion continues to be a highly protected civil right BUT if those charged with applying the law fail to be neutral in their decision-making process, everyone loses. The slippery slope continues . . .

About Samantha Yurman, JD

Samantha Yurman is one of ThinkHR's legal editors. She is a licensed attorney in California and Florida with over 16 years of experience researching and analyzing human resources legislation and law. Samantha uses her expertise to translate highly technical legal topics into usable information for our clients.