Jack Phillips, owner and operator of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado received some excellent news from the Supreme Court, as a 7-2 decision ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated his First Amendment rights.
The majority opinion was penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who as joined by Justices Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch, and Stephen Breyer. Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the opinion and the result, pushing it to 7-2 in favor of Mr. Phillips, which overturned the 10 Circuit’s decision in support of the CCRC’s actions.
The two dissenting votes, unsurprisingly, are Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
The case concerned the plight of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused to bake a number of different kinds of cakes, based on his religious principles. For example, he refused to bake cakes that celebrated divorces, cakes that were infused with alcohol, cakes with obscene language or artwork, or cakes celebrating same-sex weddings.
Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop were sued by a gay couple under a Colorado state law (the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act) that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation by any “place of business engaged in any sales to the public[.]”
Under CADA, the case was handled by the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which found that Masterpiece was in violation of the law and referred Masterpiece for a formal hearing in front of a state administrative law judge (ALJ). The Commission rejected Masterpiece’s argument that compelling him to bake the cake would violate his rights under the First Amendment.
In ruling in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the court declined to make sweeping rulings about the propriety of such laws as CADA generally, but instead focused on what it considered shortcomings in the Civil Rights Commission’s deliberative processes.
Writing for the court, Justice Kennedy explained 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 toward religion.”
The opinion was fully focused on the open hostility that the CCRC displayed toward religion:
Indeed, while the instant enforcement proceedings were pending, the State Civil Rights Division concluded in at least three cases that a baker acted lawfully in declining to create cakes with decorations that demeaned gay persons or gay marriages. Phillips too was entitled to a neutral and respectful consideration of his claims in all the circumstances of the case… That consideration was compromised, however, by the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case, which showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection. As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. No commissioners objected to the comments. Nor were they mentioned in the later state-court ruling or disavowed in the briefs filed here. The comments thus cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case.
While this is a major victory for the First Amendment and Phillips, it’s important to note this ruling does not answer the question, definitively, whether or not businesses may categorically refuse to provide certain services for same-sex weddings, which means this is a topic that will likely be tackled at a later time.
Still, you have to appreciate every victory, no matter how small, and this is definitely one of those moments.
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