In a 7-2 ruling issued Monday morning, the Supreme Court decided in favor of a Colorado bakery that felt they were unfairly treated by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, but the Justices did not touch the First Amendment issue at the core of Masterpiece Cake Shop’s case.
The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, asked the court to decide whether the civil rights commission violated a baker’s First Amendment rights, after punishing him for refusing to make a cake for a same sex couple’s wedding ceremony. The court voted in favor of Phillips, but declined to address the larger First Amendment issue as to whether there is a religious exemption for artists, generally, under the Free Exercise clause.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that that particular issue “must await further elaboration.”
The case originated in 2012, when a same-sex couple complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that Masterpiece Cake Shop refused to bake them a cake for their wedding. The Civil Rights Commission determine that Phillips had violated a Colorado law that prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation. Colorado courts, and an appeals court, upheld that decision.
The Supreme Court, however, could not look past what Kennedy called during oral arguments, a “civil rights” scheme that was “neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs,” which are also protected by civil rights laws.
“The commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion,” Kennedy wrote in Monday’s decision, in which two of the courts more liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joined.
The ruling was not narrow, but the decision itself can be considered very limited in scope. Other bakers, pizza makers, and florists — many of whom have met with similar punishments for refusing to participate in same-sex weddings — may not be able to use Monday’s decision to defend their actions. A commission, who narrowly applies the discrimination rules of their state, in a neutral way, and with consideration of Free Exercise of religion as a civil right, may still be able to punish those who do not wish to provide material participation in a same-sex wedding ceremony.
But the Court did note that religion, and religious beliefs, must be considered in these types of situations, and that could provide some relief to others going forward — if only because civil rights commission may be less likely to accept these types of cases going forward.