A Colorado ruling against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in Colorado was overturned Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark ruling involving religious liberty and potential discrimination.
Justices voted 7-2 to overturn a ruling by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, was wrong to refuse to decorate a wedding for two men, Charlie Craig and David Mullins.
Phillips cited his religious beliefs in his refusal.
Colorado law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the commission concluded that Phillips’ refusal violated the law. The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the determination; the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling appeared to be an attempt to decide the case on narrow grounds — the process used by the Civil Rights Commission, which the majority found showed hostility to Phillips’ religious views, the ruling suggests — and was not intended to be a sweeping declaration about whether there’s a right to discriminate based on religious beliefs.
“The Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality,” Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled for the Supreme Court majority.
“The reason and motive for the baker’s refusal were based on his sincere religious beliefs and convictions. The (Supreme) Court’s precedents make clear that the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws. Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach.
“That requirement, however, was not met here,” Kennedy continued. “When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires. Given all these considerations, it is proper to hold that whatever the outcome of some future controversy involving facts similar to these, the Commission’s actions here violated the Free Exercise Clause; and its order must be set aside.”
Phillips was at work in his Lakewood shop Monday morning as the ruling came down. He declined to talk to reporters, as his phone rang incessantly.
“Jack serves all customers; he simply declines to express messages or celebrate events that violate his deeply held beliefs,” the Alliance Defending Freedom, which helped Phillips drive the case to the nation’s highest court, said in a statement.
“Creative professionals who serve all people should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment. Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society, yet the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage,” the ADF statement continued.
“The court was right to condemn that. Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a society like ours. This decision makes clear that the government must respect Jack’s beliefs about marriage.”
His customers showed up ready to celebrate, some wearing the shop’s T-shirt.
“It’s a great day for cake,” said customer John Works.
Gay rights supporters from the beginning have called the argument that religious views can trump discrimination laws a vehicle for rampant abuse, while conservatives have said people of faith have rights, too.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the couple in its legal fight, said it was pleased the court did not endorse a broad religion-based exemption from anti-discrimination laws.
“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, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.
The case has divided the Colorado legislature, which in the 2018 session struggled to reauthorize the state’s Civil Rights Commission, and put Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who defended the decision, at odds with most of her party, one of the reasons her once-lauded run for governor never got traction until she was eliminated near the back of the pack at the state assembly in April.
In the end, the decision did not turn out to be partisan on the court. Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the majority. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor were the dissenting votes.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December. At the time, Kennedy was plainly bothered by comments by a commission member. The commissioner seemed “neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs,” Kennedy said in December.
Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in 1996, when the high court overturned Colorado’s Amendment 2passed by voters in 1992 to allow employers to withhold protections against discrimination for gay employees.
That same sentiment suffused his opinion on Monday. “The commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion,” he wrote.
Colorado Politics’ Marianne Goodland and The Associated Press contributed to this story.