WASHINGTON (CN) – A Colorado baker who refused to design a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his Christian beliefs won a 7-2 reversal Monday from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Resolving the case on narrow grounds, the majority found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission evinced bias when it considered the discrimination charge against the Masterpiece Cakeshop and its owner, Jack Phillips.
“The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court, going on to cite “elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated” Phillips to object to baking for Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins.
As quoted in the ruling, several commissioners made no effort to disguise their contempt for the concept of sincerely held religious beliefs when they held proceedings on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in 2014.
“Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be — I mean, we — we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination,” a commissioner said. “And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to — to use their religion to hurt others.”
Kennedy called the point clearly disparaging. Holocaust and slavery comparisons notwithstanding, Kennedy emphasized, the commissioner described faith as despicable and “as merely rhetorical — something insubstantial and even insincere.”
“This sentiment is inappropriate for a commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law — a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation,” Kennedy added.
Resolving Mullins and Craig’s discrimination charge will be difficult, Kennedy noted later, but it cannot be achieved at the expense of the neutral consideration that Phillips should be afforded to raise sincere religious objections.
“The official expressions of hostility to religion in some of the commissioners’ comments — comments that were not disavowed at the commission or by the state at any point in the proceedings that led to affirmance of the order — were inconsistent with what the Free Exercise Clause requires,” Kennedy wrote. “The commission’s disparate consideration of Phillips’ case compared to the cases of the other bakers suggests the same. For these reasons, the order must be set aside.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined a dissent meanwhile by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Whatever one may think of the statements in historical context, I see no reason why the comments of one or two commissioners should be taken to overcome Phillips’ refusal to sell a wedding cake to Craig and Mullins,” Ginsburg wrote. “The proceedings involved several layers of independent decisionmaking, of which the commission was but one.”
After noting that both an administrative law judge and the Colorado Court of Appeals sided against Phillips as well, Ginsburg asked what prejudice infected their determinations.
Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Phillips, received the ruling warmly.
“Praise God,” Sarah Kramer, the group’s digital content specialist, said in a blog post Monday.
“Jack loves and serves all people, but he cannot use his artistic talents to celebrate every event or express every message,” Kramer’s post continues. “That’s why he has turned down a number of custom cake orders in the past, including cakes celebrating Halloween, bachelor party cakes, and even a cake celebrating a divorce. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for him to decline to design a cake for an event that violates his convictions.”
Attorneys for Mullins and Craig also found cause to celebrate Monday’s ruling.
“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,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
Nothing about the reversal shakes the “core principle that businesses open to the public must be open to all,” the ACLU’s statement emphasizes.
“The court did not accept arguments that would have turned back the clock on equality by making our basic civil rights protections unenforceable,” the statement continues.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman released a statement on Monday’s ruling but offered no defense for how the state commission treated Phillips, the Christian baker.
“The court made its decision based on a specific set of facts and left open many legal questions,” Coffman said. “Unfortunately, those questions will have to be decided in future litigation.
“The court did make clear, however, that states like Colorado may continue to protect the LGBTQ community, reaffirming principles my office has consistently defended for the past six years. The general rule was, and remains, that the First Amendment does not allow business owners to deny members of the community equal access to goods and services. As the court said, the right of gay people and couples to ‘exercise … their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect.’ The court’s decision did nothing to undermine protections the Colorado General Assembly granted to the LGBTQ community under our Anti-Discrimination Act.”
Alliance Defending Freedom noted in a statement that the commission’s order required Phillips to re-educate his staff, most of whom are his family members, and to alert the government about any cakes that he declined to create over the next two years, with an explanation of why.
Electing not to design any wedding cakes because of the case, Phillips said his income dropped 40 percent and he has been struggling to keep his business afloat.
“It’s hard to believe that the government punished me for operating my business consistent with my beliefs about marriage. That isn’t freedom or tolerance,” Phillips said in a statement. “I’m so thankful to the U.S. Supreme Court for this ruling.”
The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit that submitted an amicus brief regarding the case, criticized the court on Monday for punting on the merits.
“The Supreme Court missed a major chance today to reaffirm decades of civil rights jurisprudence,” Nick Little, legal director of the center, said in a statement. “Jack Phillips opens his business to the public. He doesn’t get to decide to refuse to serve gay people, or interracial couples, or people of different religions.”
Little insisted that the hearing Phillips received at the commission was a fair one. “An individual’s displeasure that religion should be used as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens doesn’t change that,” he said.
Rather than guaranteeing that civil rights legislation should not bend to religious preferences, Little added, the court advised states to show neutrality towards religion, with “no guidance on how to do that in the face of religiously based desires to discriminate.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions meanwhile applauded today’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court rightly concluded that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to show tolerance and respect for Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs,” Sessions said in a statement. “In this case and others, the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously defend the free speech and religious freedom First Amendment rights of all Americans.”
Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, issued a statement as well.
“Jack serves all customers; he simply declines to express messages or celebrate events that violate his deeply held beliefs,” Waggoner 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.”