Supreme Court cites agency hostility in ruling for Christian baker
Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop./AP Photo
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Monday that Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission violated the free exercise rights of a Christian baker by showing hostility to his explained religious reasons for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Kennedy’s narrow decision stressed the hostility shown to religious claims of the baker, Jack Phillips, who owned Masterpiece Cakeshop.
Kennedy said the difficult case asks the court to reconcile two principles: the authority of states to protect the rights and dignity of gay people who seek goods and services for their weddings, and the rights of people to free speech and free exercise of religion.
“Whatever the confluence of speech and free exercise principles might be in some cases,” Kennedy wrote, “the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the state’s obligation of religious neutrality.”
The gay couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, had filed a discrimination complaint in 2012 shortly after Phillips said his religious beliefs prevented him from making cakes for gay weddings. They cited Colorado law prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. At the time, Colorado did not recognize the validity of gay marriages, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet found a constitutional right for gays to marry.
The commission issued an order requiring Phillips to cease and desist discriminating against same-sex couples, and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed. But the commission violated Phillips’ rights, Kennedy said, because its “treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”
Kennedy cited the comments of one commissioner, who said religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, including slavery and the Holocaust. “And to me,” the commissioner said, “it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.”
Kennedy said the statement disparages religion “by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere.”
Kennedy also noted that the Colorado Civil Rights Decision, which investigates discrimination claims, had ruled for three bakers who refused to bake cakes that conveyed disapproval of gay marriage. The state can’t use its own assessment of offensiveness to justify the disparity between those cases and Phillips’ case, Kennedy said.
“On these facts,” Kennedy wrote, “the court must draw the inference that Phillips’ religious objection was not considered with the neutrality that the free exercise clause requires.”
Kennedy concluded his opinion by stressing that future cases will arise with different facts. “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market,” Kennedy wrote.
Ginsburg’s dissent distinguished the cases of the three bakers who refused to make cakes disapproving of gay marriage. The bakers had been approached by the author of an amicus brief, who wanted two cakes made to look like an open Bible. The brief author wanted one cake with an “X” through an image of two groomsmen holding hands, along with the words, “God loves sinners.” He wanted the other cake to read, ‘Homosexuality is a detestable sin,” and, “‘While we were yet sinners Christ died for us,” with a citation to the Bible verse.
Craig and Mullins, on the other hand, wanted a wedding cake with no message on it. What is important in the case, Ginsburg said, is that Phillips would not provide the same goods or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple.
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