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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Notable 2018 Supreme Court Decisions: Freedom of Religion vs. Anti-Gay Discrimination

Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. V. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was one of the most awaited decisions of the year. The Supreme Court had to balance the interests of freedom of religious expression vs. anti-gay discrimination.

According to Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), it is unlawful and discriminatory to deny goods and services to customers based on sexual orientation. When a same sex couple, Graig and Mullins, tried ordering a custom cake from Masterpiece Cakeshop the owner, Jack Phillips refused. Phillips didn’t fully refuse service, he offered the couple any premade item from the shop. But he refused to put his personal touch on an event that he believed violated his religion and his belief that the union of marriage should be limited to a man and a woman.

Craig and Mullins filed a CADA complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Commission found in their favor and the Colorado State Court upheld the ruling.

The Supreme Court, in a 7 to 2 decision, reversed the Colorado courts. The Court cited Phillips’ right to free exercise of religion. The decision was narrow and had several Justices concurring, making the decision difficult to use in as a future precedent. Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy, a staunch supporter of LGBT rights, focused on the Commission’s clear and open hostility toward Phillips’ religious beliefs, even comparing them to slavery and Holocaust. Furthermore, in the past, the same Commission permitted another baker to decline to bake cakes with discriminatory messages. The Commission clearly showed bias for a particular viewpoint.

What is the impact of this decision on the future? It leaves open the possibility that a neutral public accommodations law might be applied to prevent business owners from denying goods and services to same-sex couples. 

Many amicus briefs filed in this case argued that allowing a religious or free speech exemption from public accommodations, fair employment and other civil rights laws would decimate protections for women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, etc.

At the same time, many businesses, owned by religious people, were eagerly awaiting guidance from this decision. In the future, is a Jewish Orthodox catering hall obligated to provide services to a gay couple? Is a Muslim imam obligated to marry a lesbian couple?  Even though the Court ruled for the baker in this case, the decision does not provide a clear answer.


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