Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. ___ (2018), was a case in the Supreme Court of the United States that dealt with whether owners of public accommodations can refuse certain services based on the First Amendment claims of free speech and free exercise of religion, and therefore be given an exemption from laws ensuring non-discrimination in public accommodation — in particular, by refusing to provide creative services, such as making a wedding cake for the marriage of a same-sex couple, on the basis of the owner's religious beliefs.
|Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission|
|Argued December 5, 2017|
Decided June 4, 2018
|Full case name||Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., et al., Petitioners v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, et al.|
584 U.S. ___ (more)|
138 S. Ct. 1719
|Prior history||Judgment for plaintiff, Craig v. Masterpiece Cake Shop et al., No. 14CA1351 (2015); cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 2290 (2017)|
|By failing to act in a manner neutral to religion, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.|
|Majority||Kennedy, joined by Roberts, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch|
|Concurrence||Kagan, joined by Breyer|
|Concurrence||Gorsuch, joined by Alito|
|Concurrence||Thomas, joined by Gorsuch|
|Dissent||Ginsburg, joined by Sotomayor|
|U.S. Const. amend. I|
The case dealt with Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, which refused to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple based on the owner's religious beliefs. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission, evaluating the case under the state's anti-discrimination law, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, found the bakery discriminated against the couple and issued specific orders for the bakery to follow. Following appeals within the state that affirmed the Commission's decision, the bakery took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 7-2 decision, the Court ruled on narrow grounds that the Commission did not employ religious neutrality, violating Masterpiece owner Jack Phillips' rights to free exercise, and reversed the Commission's decision. The Court did not rule on the broader intersection of anti-discrimination laws, free exercise of religion, and freedom of speech, due to the complications of the Commission's lack of religious neutrality.
Facts of the caseEdit
In 2012, same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins from Colorado made plans to be lawfully married in Massachusetts and return to Colorado to celebrate with their family and friends. At that time state law did not provide for same-sex marriage in Colorado, though by 2014 the state had allowed same-sex marriages, and the Supreme Court of the United States would affirm that gay couples have the fundamental right to marry in Obergefell v. Hodges 576 U.S. ___ (2015).
Craig and Mullins visited Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado in July 2012 to order a wedding cake for their return celebration. Masterpiece's owner Jack Phillips, who is a Christian, declined their cake request, informing the couple that he did not create wedding cakes for same-sex marriages owing to his Christian religious beliefs, although the couple could purchase other baked goods in the store. Craig and Mullins promptly left Masterpiece without discussing with Phillips any details of their wedding cake.:2 The following day, Craig's mother, Deborah Munn, called Phillips, who advised her that Masterpiece did not make wedding cakes for same-sex weddings:2 because of his religious beliefs and because Colorado did not recognize same-sex marriages.:1–2
Colorado Civil Rights CommissionEdit
While another bakery provided a cake to the couple, Craig and Mullins filed a complaint to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission under the state's public accommodations law, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits businesses open to the public from discriminating against their customers on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Colorado is one of twenty-one U.S. states that have anti-discrimination laws against sexual orientation. Craig and Mullins' complaint resulted in a lawsuit, Craig v. Masterpiece Cakeshop. The case was decided in favor of the plaintiffs; the cake shop was ordered not only to provide cakes to same-sex marriages, but to "change its company policies, provide 'comprehensive staff training' regarding public accommodations discrimination, and provide quarterly reports for the next two years regarding steps it has taken to come into compliance and whether it has turned away any prospective customers."
Colorado Court of AppealsEdit
Masterpiece appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals with the aid of Alliance Defending Freedom, and refused to comply with the state's orders, instead opting to remove themselves from the wedding cake business; Phillips claimed that this decision cost him 40% of his business. Alongside the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union represented Craig and Mullins during the appeals. The state's decision was upheld on the grounds that despite the nature of creating a custom cake, the act of making the cake was part of the expected conduct of Phillips' business, and not an expression of free speech nor free exercise of religion. The court distinguished its decision in Craig from another case, brought to the Commission by William Jack, in which three bakeries refused to create a cake for Jack with the message "Homosexuality is a detestable sin. Leviticus 18:22",:21 citing that in the latter, the bakeries had made other cakes for Christian customers and declined that order based on the offensive message rather than the customers' creed, whereas Masterpiece Cakeshop's refusal to provide Craig & Mullins with a wedding cake "was because of its opposition to same sex marriage which...is tantamount to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.":21
Before the Supreme CourtEdit
Petition for writ of certiorariEdit
Whether applying Colorado's public accommodations law to compel Phillips to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.
Both the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, fearing that a Court decision in favor of the business would create a "gaping hole" in civil rights laws on the basis of religion. The final briefs at the certiorari stage were received in December 2016. The Court agreed to hear the case in the 2017 term and oral arguments were heard on December 5, 2017.
In further filings, Masterpiece requested that the Colorado anti-discrimination law be reviewed by the Supreme Court under strict scrutiny. He further identified that while the state's law is to assure that same-sex couples had access to the same services as heterosexual couples, the law goes too far in its enforcement, since Craig and Mullins were easily able to obtain a wedding cake from a different vendor in the state. Masterpiece further believed the anti-discrimination law can be used to selectively discriminate against religion, as the Commission has allowed bakers to refuse to provide cakes with anti-same-sex marriage messages on them, even though the Commission said these refusals were appropriate due to the offensiveness of the messages and not on the basis of religion. The State and the ACLU countered these points, stating the law was aimed only at conduct of a business, not their speech, and in cases like a wedding cake, "[no] reasonable observer would understand the Company’s provision of a cake to a gay couple as an expression of its approval of the customer's marriage". They further argued that the cakeshop could provide catchall language to explain that any services they provide do not endorse any expressions of free speech associated with it, an allowance within the anti-discrimination law.
Around 100 legal briefs were filed by third parties, roughly equally split in supporting either side of the case. Many civil rights organizations filed briefs in support of Craig and Mullins, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the Civil Rights Forum, a group of plaintiff-side civil rights attorneys.
Among those supporting Phillips include the United States Department of Justice under the Trump administration. While the Department asserts that anti-discrimination laws are necessary to prevent businesses that provide goods and services, these laws cannot be used to compel a business into expressing speech they do not agree with, nor used to provide goods and services with such expressions without the ability for the business to assert they do not agree with those expressions. The brief was criticized by several organizations, including those that support LGBT rights, claiming the brief as a pattern of hostile actions by the Trump administration and fearing that a decision in favor of Masterpiece would enable such businesses to have a "license to discriminate".
Oral arguments for the plaintiffs were provided by Kristen Waggoner for the Alliance Defending Freedom, representing Phillips, and the Solicitor General of the United States Noel Francisco, presenting the United States' government case as amicus curiae in support of Masterpiece Cakeshop. The defendants' arguments were given by Colorado Solicitor General Frederick Yarger, on behalf of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and David D. Cole of the ACLU, on behalf of Craig and Mullins. Questions asked by the Justices attempted to determine where the bounds of a cake baker's rights and the rights of those soliciting his services would extend by considering several hypothetical situations involving the making of and selling custom cakes, including situations related to racial and gender-preference discrimination.
Experts believed the Supreme Court's opinions in the case would be divided, with the ultimate decision falling on the opinion of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has historically been a swing vote in his term. In his past case history, he has been a strong supporter of gay rights (having authored all of the landmark gay rights rulings by the Supreme Court: Romer v. Evans in 1996, Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, United States v. Windsor in 2013, and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015), and a corporation's freedom of speech in his majority opinion for Citizens United v. FEC 558 U.S. 310 (2010), and freedom of religion through his concurrence with the majority in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. 573 U.S. ___ (2014).
Opinion of the CourtEdit
The Court issued its ruling on June 4, 2018, ordering a reversal of the decision made by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch. The opinion stated that although a baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, "might have his right to the free exercise of his religion limited by generally applicable laws", a State decision in an adjudication “in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself” is a factor violates the "State’s obligation of religious neutrality" under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Kennedy's opinion stated that the Commission's review of Phillips' case exhibited hostility towards his religious views. The Commission compared Phillips' religious beliefs to defense of slavery or the Holocaust. Kennedy found such comparisons "inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law". Kennedy's opinion also cited the three exemptions the commission previously granted for the non-discrimination law arising from the William Jack complaints. The opinion also noted differences in handling previous exemptions as indicative of Commission hostility towards religious belief, rather than maintaining neutrality. Kennedy's opinion noted that he may have been inclined to rule in favor of the Commission if they had remained religiously neutral in their evaluation.
Justice Kagan wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Breyer, taking particular notice of the narrow grounds of the ruling. Justice Gorsuch also wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Alito. Both Kagan's and Gorsuch's concurrence considered how the Commission handled Masterpiece differently than prior exemption requests. Kagan and Gorsuch concurrence agreed the Commission exhibited hostility towards Phillips' religious beliefs and concurred with the reversal. Kagan cited as significant differences between prior Commission exemptions and the instant case. She posited the Commission could have ruled differently in the two situations if they had stayed religiously-neutral. Gorsuch indicated the Commission should maintain consistency among similar cases.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote another opinion, concurring in part and concurring in judgment, joined by Gorsuch. Thomas found that the Majority opinion did not consider the free speech, free exercise or anti-discrimination implications of the case, despite significant attention during oral arguments. Thomas opined support for Masterpiece, both on grounds of free speech and free exercise.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Sonia Sotomayor. Ginsburg believed that the Commission acted fairly in evaluating the case, saying "what critically differentiates them is the role the customer’s 'statutorily protected trait,' played in the denial of service".
The Court avoided ruling broadly on the intersection of anti-discrimination laws and rights to free exercise. Kennedy's decision specifically noted the hostility towards Phillips made by the Commission as their reason to reverse the ruling, but because of the existence of this hostility in the current case, they could not rule on the broader issue regarding anti-discrimination law and the free exercise of religion. Kennedy stated that "[t]he outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these 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's decision affirmed that there remains protection of same-sex couples and gay rights which states can still enforce through anti-discrimination laws, a point also agreed to by Ginsburg's dissent. The general constitutionality of anti-discrimination laws to prevent discrimination against sexual orientation affirmed by the Masterpiece decision was reflected in lower courts that same week, in a case decided by the Arizona Court of Appeals, Brush & Nib Studio v. Phoenix, which upheld the city of Phoenix's anti-discrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation. The Court of Appeals extensively quoted Masterpiece in affirming the Arizona Superior Court's prior decision.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Masterpiece, supported the Court's decision in finding that condemned the Commission's review of Phillips' case, stating that "Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a society like ours". The American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the part of the decision affirming protection of gay rights, stating that the Court "reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against L.G.B.T. people".
Another predominate case involving anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom that was in the court system during Masterpiece was the Arlene's Flowers lawsuit in Washington, with the issue over flower arrangements being provided for a same-sex wedding. Prior to the decision in Masterpiece, a petition for writ of certorari had been issued to the Supreme Court. Following the decision of Masterpiece, the flower shop owner used that decision to assert that they were shown similar religious hostility, and requested their case to be reheard. On June 25, 2018, the Supreme Court dismissed the pending petition, and ordered that lower courts review the flower shop's case in a similar light as Masterpiece.
Masterpiece's basis of evaluating statements of public officials to determine if there was religious hostility in evaluating cases arose in Justice Sotomayor's dissent in Trump v. Hawaii, 585 U.S. ___ (2018), which dealt with President Trump's travel ban against several nations which had a high Muslim population. While the majority ruled that the ban was within the President's powers and sent the case back to lower courts to rule on other matters, Sotomayor believed that the decision of Masterpiece should have been used to judge President Trump and his administration's statements that she believed showed hostility towards Muslims and would have not justified the ban.
A nationwide and state-by-state poll on the issue conducted throughout 2017 by the Public Religion Research Institute as part of the annual American Values Atlas survey revealed that 60% of Americans, including a majority or plurality in every state, opposed allowing religiously-based refusals of services or products to gay people by small business owners (colloquially known as "the baker's exception"), while 33% supported allowing such religiously-based refusal, and 7% had no opinion.
Masterpiece Cakeshop became involved in a similar case in 2018, stemming from an incident in June 2017. The bakery refused to bake Autumn Scardina, a Colorado lawyer, a cake to celebrate her gender transition, which would have had a pink interior and blue exterior. Philips stated later that he refused to bake such a cake based on his Christian beliefs that one does not get to choose their gender. Scardina complained to the Colorado Division of Civil Rights, which found in June 2018 sufficient evidence that the bakery discriminated against her transgender status, and ordered the parties into compulsory mediation. Philips subsequently filed a lawsuit against the state in August 2018 to seek a permanent injunction to prevent the state from enforcing its anti-discrimination laws against him as well as punitive damages. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who is named as a defendant in the suit, expects that the case will require the Supreme Court to revisit its decision from Masterpiece, as the previous ruling "did not address the basic issue" of religious freedom.
- Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (2017) – contemporaneous case, currently in Oregon state courts, resulting from the denial to a same-sex couple of a wedding cake due to the bakery owners' religious beliefs
- List of United States Supreme Court cases by the Roberts Court
- 2017 term opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States
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With Kennedy seemingly holding the key vote, the couple and their supporters at first seemed to have reason to be optimistic.
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