I wrote in a blog a little while back about the Masterpiece Cake Shop case that SCOTUS had to hear and that we were getting ready to witness what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object—that is, when first amendment rights conflict with anti-discrimination laws. To jog your memory, the facts of the case are as follows:
Colorado couple Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins went into Masterpiece Cake Shop to order a wedding cake for their wedding in 2012 from head baker and cake artist Jack Phillips. Prior to the Obergefell case in 2015 that made same-sex marriage legal on a national level, laws either permitting or outright denying same-sex marriages were passed on a state-by-state basis and not a countrywide policy, and at the time, Colorado had not definitively legalized the practice.
The gay couple requested a custom cake to be served at their wedding reception, but Phillips, a life-long Christian, did not want to use his art to endorse a homosexual wedding and thus declined to fulfill the couple’s order. Phillips was hit with a lawsuit claiming that violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination act. Phillips’ defense was simple: if the state forced him to use his artistic skills to bake a cake, it would be effectively compelling his speech, which is a clear first amendment violation.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission heard the case and ruled against Phillips, saying that his refusal to bake and decorate the custom cake for the couple on account of his religious beliefs was on par with some of the other horrors of history, including the Holocaust. Phillips appealed, and the question of Freedom of Speech versus Anti Discrimination was taken before the highest court in the land.
Well, on June 4, the Supreme Court handed down a 7-2 decision in favor of the cake shop, saying that the Colorado state ruling was unconstitutional and that its ruling was to be set aside. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion to that effect and was joined by concurrences from Justices Kagan and Thomas. The ruling, which has been described as incredibly narrow, does more to elucidate the problems of how the case proceeded than the true facts of it and how this ruling will impact further discrimination cases.
Kennedy has been known to be a champion of progressive readings of the constitution, but he has also been known to “let the losers complain.” That is, he’s not out to make people upset with his rulings miserable and will uphold their civil rights to express their displeasure within reason.
To that end, Kennedy’s majority opinion focused almost exclusively on the mistreatment that Phillips endured from the state of Colorado as the case made its way up the courts on account of his religious beliefs. For pages, Kennedy recounted the ways in which the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to withhold their bias as they heard and decided the case. In that Phillips is indeed promised freedom of religious expression by the first amendment, and that the Commission berated him for his religious beliefs, Kennedy was stern in his writing that courts must set aside their notions about religion and administer justice more fairly.
What the ruling did not do, though, was make any useful commentary on whether the baker was truly within his rights to refuse service on free speech grounds. While the ruling did not strike down the Colorado anti-discrimination law, it did not provide any clarity as to the line between protecting LGBTQ+ people and allowing room for religious expression. The court made it clear that equal protection extends to LGBTQ+ individuals, but that there is room for businesspeople to behave in ways in line with their religious beliefs to an extent that the courts failed to elucidate
Naturally, LGBTQ+ groups have counted this ruling as a loss and have called for national legislation that would, in essence, require people like Jack Phillips to set aside their religious beliefs and offer their services and expression to LGBTQ+ folks. Some have gone as far to suggest a constitutional amendment to this effect. However, with the vagueness and narrowness of this most recent ruling, religious groups will continue to cite the first amendment until the courts put their foot down and decide on an acceptable balance between religious freedom and equal protection.