The Supreme Court battle over a baker’s refusal to make a same-sex wedding cake — citing freedom of religious and artistic expression — finally has its verdict. In a 7-2 majority decision, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Colorado-based Masterpiece Cakeshop, in a unique decision that mainly found fault with the way the lower court came to its ruling. Today’s SCOTUS ruling reverses a prior decision that ruled government protections against discrimination (in this case, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act) outweighed fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
But today’s majority opinion takes issue with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s approach to the case, strongly suggesting a retrial by the lower court. In that original case, Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, who declined to make couple Dave Mullin and Charlie Craig’s wedding cake (citing religious freedom), was told to forgo baking wedding cakes unless he agreed to bake the same cakes for same-sex couples as he would for heterosexual couples. (In response, Phillips chose to stop baking wedding cakes altogether.)
In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Phillips also argued that some of the commissioners involved with that Civil Rights decision may have been biased against religion freedom claims, and SCOTUS seemed to agree. As Justice Anthony Kennedy writes in his majority opinion: “The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.” For that reason, the majority argues, the Colorado decision must be “set aside.”
The decision, however, allows many of the overarching constitutional questions related to this case to remain vague; while it argues that religious beliefs should be considered as important as civil rights, it is not a blanket approval to discriminate. “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Kennedy wrote.
In their dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor argue that the evidence from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission proceeding “do not evidence hostility to religion of the kind we have previously held to signal a free-exercise violation,” disagreeing with the court’s overturning of that decision. And, Ginsburg writes, “Phillips declined to make a cake he found offensive where the offensiveness of the product was determined solely by the identity of the customer requesting it.” As such, she affirms what she believes was a “sensible application” of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act in this case.
The decision also contains little recognition of Phillips’s argument over whether cake-making should be protected by rights to artistic expression. Earlier this year, members of the culinary community debated Phillips’s First Amendment claims to artistic expression: Dozens of prominent chefs and restaurant industry professionals signing onto an amicus brief arguing that food preparation, while a display of “talent, skill, and artistry,” should not be elevated to First Amendment protections.
• Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm’n [Supreme Court]