Supreme Court Sides with Baker Who Refused to Make Cake for Same-Sex Wedding

Employers must still comply with laws protecting religion and sexual orientation

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his sincerely held religious beliefs, but the high court left critical questions about free speech unanswered.

In Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the same-sex couple claimed that the baker's refusal to make their wedding cake violated a state anti-discrimination law, and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission agreed.  

The Supreme Court justices, however, sided with the baker in a 7-2 decision on June 4. Specifically, the justices said that some state commission members were hostile toward the baker's sincerely held religious beliefs, which violated their constitutional duty of religious neutrality. For example, one commissioner said during a public hearing that using freedom of religion to justify discrimination "is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use."

The justices called the sentiment inappropriate for a commission that is supposed to fairly and neutrally enforce Colorado's anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination based on religion as well as sexual orientation.

This is an extremely narrow ruling that really didn't get to the heart of the issues presented in the case, said Lisa McGlynn, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Tampa, Fla. Employers should not interpret the ruling to mean that sexual-orientation discrimination is acceptable in the workplace, she noted.

Employers should be aware of the anti-discrimination laws in their own states, which vary significantly. "The overall theme shows increasing protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and we can expect that trend to continue," McGlynn said.

The ruling also doesn't change employers' obligation to make reasonable religious accommodations, said Mark Phillis, an attorney with Littler in Pittsburgh. Employers shouldn't question the sincerity of an employee's religious beliefs when he or she is seeking religious accommodations, he said. Rather, employers should understand and follow the accommodation requirements under federal and state law.

The Ruling

Denver-area baker Jack Phillips refuses to create products that contain alcohol, celebrate Halloween or communicate messages prohibited by his Christian faith, such as racism, atheism, and marriages that are not between one man and one woman.

Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple, asked Phillips to make a cake for their wedding, but he refused because of his religious beliefs. Phillips said that "he is happy to create other items for gay and lesbian clients," just not wedding cakes, according to his petition to the Supreme Court.

The couple claimed that Phillips violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits businesses that sell goods and services to the public from discriminating based on sexual orientation, in addition to other characteristics such as disability, national origin and race.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that Phillips could not refuse to make the cake, and Phillips argued that compelling him to make the cake violated his right to free speech and free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court didn't rule on Phillips' free speech claim. Instead, it held that the commission was hostile toward his sincerely held religious beliefs and therefore violated the Constitution's free exercise clause.

"When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, ruling that the commission's order must be set aside.

The decision doesn't answer any of the key questions in the case regarding the tension between lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights under state law and the First Amendment right to free speech.

"The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, 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," Kennedy wrote.

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People were hopeful that this case would provide some more guidance for businesses and employers on these issues, but because the ruling was so narrow, they will have to wait and see what happens as other cases that present these issues make their way through the courts, Phillis said.

Dissent

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a dissenting opinion, rejected the majority's comparison of this case to another Colorado case in which William Jack asked three Colorado bakeries to make two cakes resembling an open Bible. He wanted one cake to include an image of two groomsmen with a red "X" over the image. He wanted the other cake to say, "Homosexuality is a detestable sin." The bakers each offered to make a Bible cake but wouldn't include the messages, which one baker called "hateful."

Jack filed charges, arguing that he was denied goods and services based on his Christian religious beliefs. In that case, the state ruled that the bakers could refuse to make the cakes. The Supreme Court majority in the current case, however, said that the commission didn't treat Phillips' objections in the same way it treated the bakers' objections in the Jack case.

Ginsburg said the cases "are hardly comparable." The bakers in the Jack case would have refused to make cakes with those messages for anyone, regardless of their religion, she said, whereas "Phillips would not sell to Craig and Mullins, for no reason other than their sexual orientation, a cake of the kind he regularly sold to others."

This issue is almost certain to reach the high court again.

"The Supreme Court may have dodged the issue for now, but it will not be able to avoid it forever," said JoLynn Markison, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis. 

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