The United States Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who made news when he refused to bake a custom cake for a same-sex couple because he believed doing so would violate his religious beliefs. This was one of the most watched and highly anticipated decisions to come from the court this term and was a relatively narrow decision — not in the number of justices agreeing to overturn the lower court’s decision, but in the majority’s reasoning, which hinged on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s violation of Phillips’ rights under Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, rather than the underlying issue of the couple’s rights to equal service.
The action stemmed from a 2012 encounter when a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, entered the Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Colorado owned by Phillips. The couple inquired about ordering a cake for their wedding reception, and Phillips answered that he would not create a cake for them because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriages. At that time, Colorado did not recognize same-sex marriages. The couple was planning on marrying in Massachusetts and later holding a reception in Denver for their family and friends. The baker initially told the couple that he would not bake a cake for a same-sex couple as same-sex marriage was not legal in Colorado; however he later explained that by baking and “creating” a cake for this couple, he would be engaging in behavior that would go beyond his understanding of the Bible.
The couple proceeded to file a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The commission found in favor of the couple, and the Colorado state court affirmed the decision. Phillips decided to further his appeal to the Supreme Court.
The majority noted how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission — which had ruled in favor of other bakers who were asked to write derogatory language on cakes — demonstrated “clear and impermissible hostility” toward Phillips and his sincere religious beliefs. The court held that 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. Because the case did not involve the content of any writing, the court did not need to address the issue of free speech its decision.
“The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
Clearly, the decision — based on an admittedly narrow set of circumstances — leaves open the possibility of future litigation brought against service providers involving their sincere religious beliefs. Nevertheless, it provides some guidance as to how the Supreme Court will analyze conflicts which may arise between a person’s religious beliefs and anti-discrimination laws.
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