The U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling Monday in favor of a Christian baker who declined to bake a custom wedding cake for a same-sex wedding, concluding a state agency did not apply anti-discrimination law in a neutral manner.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for a seven-justice majority. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
The case was occasioned when David Mullins and Charlie Craig, a gay couple, entered Jack Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo in 2012. After a short discussion with the prospective patrons, Phillips said he would not sell them a custom wedding cake due to his deeply-held religious beliefs. Mullins and Craig filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, prompting a lengthy legal battle culminating in an appeal to the high court.
Kennedy explained that the Colorado law can validly protect LGBT patrons, but found the state agency applied the law in a manner hostile towards Phillips’ evangelical beliefs.
“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,” Kennedy wrote.
He also noted that the commission’s decision respecting Phillips was inconsistent with its treatment of similar disputes. On three occasions the state civil rights division found in favor of merchants who declined to create cakes conveying messages disparaging same-sex couples or promoting orthodox Christian belief. \In those instances, the agency concluded that the expression requested could reasonably be attributed to the bakers, justifying their refusal to accommodate the patrons. Those decisions also explained that the bakeries at issue produced goods for religious life cycle events like baptisms, bar mitzvahs, or first communions, defeating claims of anti-religious animus.
In Phillips’ case, on the other hand, the commission said the cake’s message could only be imputed to the customer, and ignored his willingness to sell generic baked good to all comers.
“In view of these factors, the record here demonstrates that the commission’s consideration of Phillips’ case was neither tolerant nor respectful of his religious beliefs,” the decision reads.
The decision is silent as to whether a First Amendment objection can defeat a general and neutral public accommodations law, the legal question at the heart of the Masterpiece case.
As such, the ruling is largely confined to the facts at hand, with limited application in related cases. Civil rights groups promptly spun the decision as a partial victory, claiming it reaffirms anti-discrimination principles favorable to gay plaintiffs in future cases.
“The Court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision 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,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU.
Still, Phillips’ lawyers trumpeted the holding as a victory for religious liberty.
“Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a society like ours,” said Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom. “This decision makes clear that the government must respect Jack’s beliefs about marriage.”
Justice Elena Kagan wrote a concurring opinion joined by Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a concurring opinion joined by Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas also filed a concurring opinion, which Gorsuch joined.
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