Monday's U. S. Supreme Court decision in favor of Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop focused on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, overturning its ruling against Phillips for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
Legal experts say the ruling likely will have little impact on the commission or on Colorado's law barring discrimination.
But the ruling prompted Republican lawmakers to attack the commission, with Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, saying the panel should be "depoliticized, de-radicalized and returned to its original mission - to protect the civil liberties of all Coloradans, not just a select few."
Phillips' attorney warned that they're ready to take on the state again if changes aren't made.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Supreme Court majority, took the Civil Rights Commission to task, saying its "consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State's obligation of religious neutrality."
The commission "violated the (Constitution's) Free Exercise Clause; and its order must be set aside," Kennedy wrote.
But the Supreme Court was not making a sweeping determination on whether anti-discrimination laws can be sidestepped on religious grounds, the ruling emphasized.
"I signed and endorsed the initial (state) decision and stand by it," said Steve Chavez, who was director of the state Division of Civil Rights when it ruled in favor of same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins and against Phillips and his bakery.
"My staff did a great job in balancing the interests of both entities. It's unfortunate that the court focused on the issues they did instead of the overarching issue of freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation."
Chavez told Colorado Politics the ruling baffled him, as the Colorado Court of Appeals reviewed the same information as the high court did. But he said he was pleased that the new ruling doesn't touch Colorado's anti-discrimination laws.
And he agreed with Kennedy that "adjudicatory bodies have to engage in strict neutrality with regard to these issues."
The case started in 2012, when Craig and Mullins tried to order a wedding cake to celebrate their same-sex marriage. Phillips refused, citing his religious beliefs.
The couple complained to the Division of Civil Rights, which found probable cause that Phillips had discriminated, based on Colorado law saying a retailer cannot discriminate against protected classes. The Civil Rights Commission solidified that decision.
Phillips appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which also sided with the couple. The state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, basically affirming the lower court decision.
So Phillips appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case last December.
But the narrow decision says nothing about future cases in which a retailer refuses service to a protected individual, said Nancy Leone, professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
Leone, who has followed the case as a specialist in civil rights and constitutional law, said Kennedy's decision was limited strictly to case facts and focused on several commissioners' comments expressing hostility to religious beliefs.
"Statements like these will have to be looked at closely" in similar pending cases, she said, but the ruling only affects Phillips' case.
Attorney Christopher Jackson agreed on Twitter that Kennedy's opinion is limited to the "specific conduct" of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and offers no guidance on how to proceed in the future.
But attorney Kristen Waggoner of Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips at the high court, disagreed. The commission must change how it defines the law, she said.
"If it doesn't, the Legislature and the executive branch have a duty to remedy that. If they don't, we'll be back before the Supreme Court. There's a problem with how the commission views the public accommodation law, and it needs to be remedied immediately," Waggoner said.
State Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, said he will sponsor legislation next year to reform the commission. He asked in a tweet for House Democrats to join him. That's unlikely, given Williams' history of anti-LGBTQ views since his days as student body president at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The Division of Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Commission needed legislative reauthorization this year. Conservative Republicans pledged to change the commission's mission to prevent decisions such as that in Masterpiece.
Legislators battled over House Bill 1256, to reauthorize both agencies, but it ultimately passed, with the governor's nominations of all members intact.
Jeff Hunt, Centennial Institute director at Colorado Christian University, said Monday's ruling sends a warning to House Democrats who refused to change the commission's mission.
"I think House Democrats and (House Speaker Crisanta) Duran have a lot of explaining to do," Hunt said, noting that even liberal Justice Elena Kagan voted with the Supreme Court majority.
The commission "is an agenda-driving operation to harm people of faith," Hunt said. "The highest court in the nation says the commission has to change. That puts Duran and House Democrats out of touch with what's best for Colorado."