On Monday, June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated a baker’s constitutional right to the free exercise of his religion, by exhibiting hostility towards the baker’s religious views as expressed in his refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. In so holding, the Supreme Court dodged broader questions about the interaction of the baker’s Constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion with customers’ rights to be free from discrimination.
Background of the Case
In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the baker refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs, although he stated that he would sell them other baked goods. The couple filed a complaint of discrimination with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which enforces state anti-discrimination law. As to public accommodations, the law specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in a “place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public.” The Commission found that the baker had violated this law, and the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed. The baker then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that forcing him to create cake would violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of his religion.
The Court’s Ruling
The Supreme Court acknowledged that the civil rights of gay persons are protected under the Constitution, but it further stated that religious views may also be protected. As a general rule, however, those views do not allow businesses to deny goods or services under a neutral public accommodations law.
In the present case, the baker claimed that there were significant First Amendment speech components associated with the creation of his cakes, and that this speech implicated his deep and sincere religious beliefs. According to the Supreme Court, he was entitled to a “neutral and respectful consideration of his claims,” but that consideration was denied to him by the Commission.
Rather, the Supreme Court found that the Commission had exhibited a “clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.” Evidencing that hostility were public statements made by various Commissioners during the agency’s complaint-handling process, including a comparison of his beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. The Supreme Court also found further indications of hostility in the difference of treatment by the Commission between the baker’s case and those of other bakers who had refused to make cakes with anti-gay sentiments and who prevailed before the Commission. As the Supreme Court stated, “A principled rationale for the difference in treatment of these two instances cannot be based on the government’s own assessment of offensiveness.”
The Supreme Court found that the Commission’s treatment of the baker “violated the State’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint.” The Supreme Court noted that “the Commission was obliged under the Free Exercise Clause to proceed in a manner neutral toward and tolerant of [the baker’s] religious beliefs.” That was not done here.
Of significance, the Supreme Court noted that the State’s interests in non-discrimination “could have been weighed against” the baker’s sincere religious beliefs in a neutral manner. And it also noted that, at the time of the attempted sales transaction, gay marriages had not yet been recognized under State law, but that circumstances had changed. The Supreme Court deliberately left open how similar cases might be resolved on the merits in the future.
Impact of the Ruling
Although not an employment case, employment lawyers were eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, believing that there might be guidance for employers regarding the intersection of discrimination laws with the Constitution’s religious freedom clause. The Supreme Court, however, avoided addressing these weighty and significant issues; rather its decision turned on a rather technical argument about the Commission’s own process and conduct. Thus, employers will continue to face uncertainty on how the federal courts will resolve this issue.