Supreme Court Issues Narrow Ruling in Wedding Cake Case Watched by Educators

By Mark Walsh — June 04, 2018 3 min read
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In a case being watched by many in the education community, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a Colorado civil rights panel had violated the religious rights of a baker who had refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

But the court’s 7-2 ruling stopped well short of deciding some of the more difficult issues in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, namely, whether the baker’s religious opposition to same-sex marriage would have to yield to the couple’s right to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The case was being watched from various corners of the education community, such as religious colleges that worried they would be required by the government to act contrary to their theological belief, and the teachers’ unions, which had joined a brief supporting the same-sex couple who were denied a cake for their wedding reception.

“The reason and motive for the baker’s refusal were based on his sincere religious beliefs and convictions,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. He said the court’s precedents make clear that the owner of a business serving the public might have religious rights limited by generally applicable laws.

“Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the state itself would not be a factor in the balance the state sought to reach,” Kennedy said. “That requirement, however, was not met here.”

It was clear at oral argument that several justices were troubled by what happened when the case was reviewed by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, had asked cake shop owner Jack Phillips to bake a wedding cake for their reception in 2012. Phillips declined, citing his Christian-based religious objection to same-sex marriage.

The couple filed a complaint with the civil rights panel, whose commissioners made hostile statements regarding Phillips’ asserted religious objections. One commissioner said “it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric” for people “to use their religion to hurt others.”

A commissioner also compared Phillips’ invocation of his religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.

“The commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the state’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy acknowledged that the court was not deciding the primary issue raised in the case, and he said similar 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 was joined in full by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Elena Kagan, and Neil M. Gorsuch. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in part of the majority opinion and in the judgment, in an opinion also signed by Gorsuch. Kagan wrote a concurrence signed by Breyer, and Gorsuch wrote a concurrence signed by Alito.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a dissent joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said she would have affirmed a Colorado state court that had ruled that the same-sex couple suffered discrimination.

“I see no reason why the comments of one or two [civil rights] commissioners should be taken to overcome Phillips’ refusal to sell a wedding cake to Craig and Mullins,” Ginsburg said.

Craig and Mullins, in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “Today’s decision means our fight against discrimination and unfair treatment will continue. We have always believed that in America, you should not be turned away from a business open to the public because of who you are. We brought this case because no one should have to face the shame, embarrassment, and humiliation of being told ‘we don’t serve your kind here’ that we faced, and we will continue fighting until no one does.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.