WASHINGTON — In a 7-2 decision June 4, the Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker in a case that put anti-discrimination laws up against freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom in its ruling against the baker, who refused to make a wedding cake for the same-sex couple.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Kennedy noted the case had a limited scope, writing that the issue “must await further elaboration.” Across the country, appeals in similar cases are pending, including another case at the Supreme Court from a florist who didn’t want to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.
The chairmen of three U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committees stated the decision “confirms that people of faith should not suffer discrimination on account of their deeply held religious beliefs, but instead should be respected by government officials.” In a statement they wrote: “In a pluralistic society like ours, true tolerance allows people with different viewpoints to be free to live out their beliefs, even if those beliefs are unpopular with the government.”
The ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission stems from the case argued before the court last December from an incident in 2012 when Charlie Craig and David Mullins asked the Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, to make a cake for their wedding reception. Phillips refused, saying his religious beliefs would not allow him to create a cake honoring their marriage.
The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which decided the baker’s action violated state law. The decision was upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Colorado Supreme Court wouldn’t take the case, letting the ruling stand. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The court opinion noted the delicate balance at stake in this case, saying: “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason, the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”
But delving further, the court deemed the specific cake in question was an artistic creation, not just a baked good. It said, “If a baker refused to sell any goods or any cakes for gay weddings, that would be a different matter,” noting that the state would have a strong case that this would be a denial of goods and services going beyond protected rights of a baker.
Here, the court said the issue was the baker’s argument that he “had to use his artistic skills to make an expressive statement, a wedding endorsement in his own voice and of his own creation.”
Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, stressed the narrowness of the court’s opinion, emphasizing that it was based on “concerns unique to the case but reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people.”