Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm'n Compromise

The Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm'n this week in favor of the baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple's wedding on the basis of his religious beliefs.  The baker had also argued a free speech component, that his cakes represented his exercise of free speech and he should not be compelled to write anything he does not with to.

It's important to note that the Supreme Court decided the case on a very narrow basis.  It did not address whether someone can refuse to comply with a law that forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation because of a free exercise or free speech argument.  This means that this type of argument will arise again and will likely be brought before the Supreme Court again.  Justice Kennedy even alluded to this in his opinion.  "Given all these considerations, it is proper to hold that whatever the outcome of some future controversy involving facts similar to these, the Commission's actions here violated the Free Exercise Clause; and its order must be set aside."  584 U.S. ____, 3 (2018) (emphasis added).

The Court decided the case on the narrow procedural grounds of the particular facts of the case, here noting the hostility to religion in the comments of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  While there are persuasive statements in Justice Kennedy's opinion regarding the interaction of the law and religious freedom in general, the controlling language pertains to this Commission and the various steps they put the bakery through.  Justice Kennedy wrote that the owner Philips was entitled to a "neutral and respectful consideration" of his case before the Commission, which he did not receive.  The Commission instead was impermissibly hostile toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection, often "endorsing a view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, and implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than full welcome in Colorado's business community."

In short, the Supreme Court concluded that the Commission acted improperly in its decision making process, not that exactly that it reached the wrong conclusion.  It's a compromise decision, punting the ultimate Constitutional issue down the field a little farther.  There will be another case like this, and this debate will continue.  Hopefully, there can be a little more love and grace all around as we continue to work towards a resolution.

If you would like to read the full decision, it can be found here.

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