The U.S. Supreme Court Monday upheld the rights of a Colorado baker to refuse on religious grounds to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and determined that Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission should not have attempted to make him do so.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 7–2 decision saying the Constitution protects the civil rights of gay people and couples, but “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”
“While it is unexceptional that Colorado law can protect gay persons in acquiring products and services on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public, the law must be applied in a manner that is neutral to religion,” the decision said.
In 2012 Charlie Craig and David Mullins asked Denver-based Masterpiece Cakeshop to make a custom wedding cake for their upcoming marriage. The owner of the shop, Jack Phillips, declined on the grounds that doing so would conflict with his Christian beliefs, but said he’d sell the pair other items from his shop or create a cake for them to celebrate a different occasion.
Colorado agencies determined his actions violated state laws that bar discrimination against gay people and said he must create cakes for same-sex weddings if he also did so for opposite-sex weddings. Phillips stopped making wedding cakes while the case progressed through the court system.
Kennedy’s ruling said comments made by the members of the Colorado Civil Rights Division showed a “clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs” that motivated Phillips’ objection, comparing them to “defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.”
The ruling also said Colorado officials treated Phillips’ case differently than it had for those of other bakers who appeared before the commission when they refused to accommodate a customer who asked them to bake cakes with anti-gay marriage messages.
“The Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the State’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint,” said the decision.
Chief Justices John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch agreed with Kennedy’s judgment.
Legal analysts said the ruling did not undermine anti-discrimination laws and was based on concerns unique to the case.
“The narrow ruling returning the case to the lower courts is based on the universal principle that constitutional claims must be heard in every instance before a neutral tribunal,” said a statement from NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill. “More important was the affirmation of eight Justices that discrimination in public accommodations enjoys no First Amendment protection.”
Case Western Reserve University Law Professor Jonathan Adler said Kennedy’s opinion largely avoided broader questions implicated by the case, which did not definitively resolve whether service providers or artisans may be required to create works for events contrary to their religious beliefs.
“The key takeaway is that government agencies need to be respectful of religious belief and can neither adopt nor enforce rules in a way that is tainted by any sort of anti-religious animus,” Adler said in an email. “This means that states retain some leeway to craft anti-discrimination laws, but they cannot evince or embody any sort of anti-religious animus and must be applied even-handedly.”
A statement from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the First Amendment prohibits governments from discriminating against citizens based on their religious beliefs and applauded Monday’s decision.
“The Supreme Court rightly concluded that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to show tolerance and respect for Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs,” said Sessions. “In this case and others, the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously defend the free speech and religious freedom First Amendment rights of all Americans.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissent that said remarks made by Civil Rights Commission members didn’t show the sort of “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.”
Their dissent said it wasn’t fair to compare the gay couple’s request with that of the man who asked other bakers to make cakes with messages hostile to gay marriage because those bakers would have refused to put those messages on a cake for any customer, regardless of religion.
“Phillips would not sell to Craig and Mullins for no reason other than their sexual orientation, a cake of a kind he regularly sold to others,” Ginsburg wrote. “When a couple contacts a bakery for a wedding cake, the product they are seeking is a cake celebrating their wedding — not a cake celebrating heterosexual weddings or same-sex weddings — and that is the service Craig and Mullins were denied.”
“Phillips declined to make a cake he found offensive where the offensiveness of the product was determined solely by the identity of the customer requesting it,” the dissent continued. “The three other bakeries declined to make cakes where their objection to the product was due to the demeaning message the requested product would literally display.”
For their part, Mullins and Craig released a statement through the American Civil Liberties Union that said their fight “against discrimination and unfair treatment will continue.”
“We have always believed that in America, you should not be turned away from a business open to the public because of who you are,” their statement said. “We brought this case because no one should have to face the shame, embarrassment, and humiliation of being told ‘we don’t serve your kind here’ that we faced, and we will continue fighting until no one does.”