Last Updated on August 26, 2021 by Varghese Summersett Family Law Group
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 this week that a Colorado baker could refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple based on the baker’s religious grounds.
How the Same-Sex Wedding Cake Case Made it to the Supreme Court
In 2012, same-sex marriage was illegal in Colorado. Charlie Craig and David Mullins decided to go to Massachusetts to get married before returning to Colorado where they lived for their reception. The chose Masterpiece Bakery in Colorado to make their wedding cake. The baker, Jack Philips, informed them he would not make a same-sex wedding cake because his religious beliefs were contrary to same-sex marriage.
After learning about Colorado’s public discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (as well as disability, race, creed, color, sex, marital status, national origin, or ancestry), Craig and Mullins went to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to file a complaint. The Commission had ruled in favor of bakers many times in the past when customers requested derogatory images on cakes, but this case was treated differently. The Commission held that Phillips could not discriminate against the couple and the Court of Appeals upheld the Commission’s decision. The Supreme Court in Colorado refused to hear the case, so the baker appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court Decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
The Supreme Court ruled on First Amendment grounds in favor of the baker. Generally, religious and philosophical objections are protected so long as they do not allow business owners to deny protected types of people equal access to services and goods under existing public accommodations laws. The Court reasoned that constitutional protections apply to the baker’s exercise of religion when denying a service for a specific event that contradicts his religious ideology.
The Court held that the actions taken by the Commission violated the Free Exercise Clause. This clause says that Americans have the ability to accept whatever religious belief they would like and also participate in religious rituals. Both beliefs and actions based on religious beliefs are covered by the law.
The Court covered three main salient points. First, the Court noted that while constitutional law can, and sometimes must, protect gay people’s civil rights, religious and philosophical opposition to gay marriage is not illegal. The right to oppose gay marriage is protected by the Constitution on religious grounds and as a form of expression. Essentially, the Colorado non-discrimination law had to be applied in a manner that was neutral when it came to religion. Here, the baker argued that making a wedding cake meant using his artistic skills to endorse a gay wedding, which would be a violation of his religious beliefs and, thus, protected by the First Amendment. The baker was owed a neutral consideration of his arguments by the Commission in light of the facts in the case, which he failed to receive.
Second, the Court looked to the actual consideration of the baker’s claim by the Commission. Specifically, the Court stated that it was clear the Commission had hostility toward the baker’s religious beliefs, which were the grounds for his objection to making the cake. The baker argued that his case was unlike other cases previously seen by the Commission and that were decided in favor of the other bakers, yet his case viewed his legitimate religious objections as illegitimate ones. The Commission went as far as describing the baker’s religious beliefs as despicable, comparing his beliefs to arguments in favor of slavery and the Holocaust. As a result, the Court found that the Commission had not acted in an impartial way.
Third, the Court discussed the Commission’s treatment of the baker and concluded that the Commission violated its State duty, as prescribed in the First Amendment, to make sure laws are not based on hostility to a religion or viewpoint that stems from religion.
To determine whether the government was neutral, the Court used several factors including: “the historical background of the decision under challenge, the specific series of events leading to the enactment or official policy in question, and the legislative or administrative history, including contemporaneous statements made by members of the decision-making body.”
Applying these factors to the case before it, the Court stated that Commission was not tolerant or respectful of the baker’s beliefs. By failing to neutrally consider the baker’s objection, the Commission violated the Free Exercise clause.
Because the Commission did not neutrally analyze the baker’s actions in denying the couple a wedding cake and because of First Amendment protections, the Supreme Court held that the baker was justified in denying services specifically for the purpose of making a wedding cake to the same-sex couple.
The Dissent in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
The decision was 7-2, with two Justices dissenting. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that here, the baker determined whether or not he would serve the customers solely based on the identity of the people requesting the cake. Ginsburg also discussed the issue of providing a service to a heterosexual couple but failing to provide that same service to a same-sex couple. Ginsburg distinguished the cases used in the Court’s decision, saying they were unlike the case in front of the court and that the logical application of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law would mean selling wedding cakes to same-sex couples.
Religious Protections vs. Sexual Orientation
Effectively, this decision concluded that religious protections were potentially more important than sexual orientation. Despite having a law protecting same-sex couples from discrimination, a disparity occurred and will likely continue to occur until another case is decided clarifying many questions on what rights are actually protected for same-sex couples.
The Court decided the wedding cake as art is protected by the First Amendment rights to religious expression and free speech. Arguing that wedding cakes involved the use of artistic skills, the baker convinced the court that his First Amendment protections applied. The Court did state that had the baker outright refused to serve the couple at all, the outcome might be different because it would be a total refusal of service, rather than an objection specifically grounded in a religious belief of marriage being between a man and a woman. Because the baker specifically objected to endorsing the couple’s marriage with a cake, the Court found that the refusal to provide this service was on a narrow enough basis to be protected by the Constitution.
If you are in a same-sex marriage and are looking for legal advice pertaining to divorce or adoptions, you need an attorney who stays abreast of the ever-changing legal landscape. You can reach us at (817) 900-3220 or online.