The Supreme Court issued today its highly-anticipated decision in MasterpieceCakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111 (Jun. 4, 2018). While the opinion’s narrow holding sets no groundbreaking precedent, it strengthens anti-LGBTQ activists and their narrative of state-led, anti-Christian persecution as the substantive debate returns to lower courts.
In 2012, Jack Phillips, owner of the bakery Masterpiece Cakeshop outside of Denver, refused David Mullins and Charlie Craig a wedding cake because he believed creating a cake for a same-sex wedding violated his religious beliefs. (Slip Op. at 1). Mullins and Craig filed a charge under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in any “place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public.” (Slip Op. 5). The Colorado Civil Rights Commission sided with Mullins and Craig, and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed. (Slip Op. at 8).
The Supreme Court’s reversal in favor of Phillips, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, comes as a surprise given Justice Kennedy’s career-defining support for LGBTQ rights. Among his authored opinions are Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), invalidating anti-sodomy laws, United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013), declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015), legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Kennedy acknowledges “[o]ur 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.” (Slip Op. at 9). But the Court still sided with Phillips, finding that the state had not met its obligation of religious neutrality. (Slip Op. 2). Instead of giving Phillips “neutral and respectful consideration,” the Court found the Commission exhibited anti-religious hostility in violation of the Free Exercise Clause. (Slip Op. at 9). Especially troubling to Justice Kennedy were the comments of one Commissioner who likened Phillips’s position to defenses of slavery and the holocaust and disparaged Phillips’s religious beliefs as “despicable” and merely “rhetoric.” (Slip Op. at 13-14). Justice Kennedy also took issue with the Commission’s treatment of Phillips compared to secular bakers who had refused to bake cakes with homophobic messages in other discrimination claims. (Slip Op. at 14-16).
By reversing the lower court on these narrow grounds, the Supreme Court avoided ruling on the case’s main issue of to what extent religious freedom can justify discrimination based on sexual orientation. “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” writes Justice Kennedy. (Slip Op. at 18). While his motivation is unclear, limiting the decision to the case’s particular facts may be an attempt to prevent further polarization in an already divided culture.
But even with its narrow holding, Masterpiece Cakeshop will negatively shape the debate over LGBTQ rights as the issue returns to lower courts. Most significant may be Justice Kennedy’s broad definition of “hostility.” In their dissent, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor criticize Justice Kennedy’s conclusion that statements made by one or two Commissioners can taint proceedings involving “several layers of independent decisionmaking, of which the Commission was but one.” (Slip Op. at 7). Finding such a low level of “hostility” violates the state’s obligation of religious neutrality expands on Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), the only case cited by Justice Kennedy as support. Lukumi involved only one decisionmaking body, compared to several in Masterpiece Cakeshop, and anti-religious animus motivated the passing of an entire law, not just a couple of a law’s enforcers. (Slip Op. at 7-8). As a result, Masterpiece Cakeshop may embolden those discriminating based on sexual orientation to seek redress in court by claiming that their animus against gay people is based upon religion.
The Supreme Court has dealt LGBTQ rights a blow with Masterpiece Cakeshop. But the wound is not fatal, and the widespread “recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts” provides hope that the civil rights of the LGBTQ community will prevail as the substantive issues of law return to the lower courts.
If you have experienced discrimination based upon your sexual orientation or gender identity and need help, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law.