By now you’ve probably heard about the bakery in Colorado that refused to bake a wedding cake for a recently married same-sex couple. The baker cited his religious faith as his basis for refusing to make the cake. The story went viral, making national headlines across the country.
Phillips, the owner of the cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, was judged in state court to have violated existing anti-discrimination laws. After various phases of litigation and appeals, the matter was presented to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Phillips’ lawyer’s argument centered on the First Amendment. Specifically, Phillips, as an artist, could not be forced to bake a cake which contradicted his religious views on homosexuality. The Colorado ruling was set aside on anti-religious grounds. The Court voted 7-2 that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated Phillips’ First Amendment rights. Read the decision here.
You may have heard the decision was a “narrow” ruling. But that doesn’t mean it squeaked by with a narrow majority of votes. Rather, it means the ruling was decided only on the specific circumstances presented. That is, the application of the decision was limited to the facts of the case. The decision is NOT about whether a business may legally refuse to serve gay or lesbian customers. As Justice Anthony Kennedy explained, that issue “must await further elaboration.” That elaboration may come in the form of similar cases on appeal, including one involving a florist who refused to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding.
The decision centered on how the Colorado Commission treated Phillips by diminishing his religious liberty concerns, which are protected by the First Amendment. Specifically, Justice Kennedy stated that the Colorado ruling was inconsistent with the guarantee that the laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.
This is one of the first hot-button LGBTQ cases to come down the SCOTUS pipeline since the 2015 landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. LGBTQ advocates, fearing setbacks for civil rights, condemned the ruling. Many worry the decision not only contradicts the Court’s own ruling regarding equal marriage, but foretells a regression in civil rights for gays and lesbians, and perhaps even a dangerous precedent for people living with HIV.
Religious groups, on the other hand, praised the ruling, noting that citizens acting consistent with their religious beliefs about marriage should be free to refuse certain persons without threat of governmental condemnation and punishment. This sentiment, they argue, is a central tenant of our constitution.
It remains to be seen whether the Court will ultimately condemn what many believe to be nothing more than intolerance and prejudice masked as religious freedom. The Court did acknowledge the underlying big picture – that persons should be free to seek goods and services in the open market without being treated as inferior and suffering the indignities of being turned away simply because of sexual orientation.
So, does the Cake Case turn back the clock on civil rights? Not necessarily. Because the decision was narrow, it doesn’t set much of a precedent. And it doesn’t mean the fight against unequal treatment and discrimination will stop. The case leaves unsettled broader constitutional questions regarding the intersection of civil rights and religious liberty.
The Hardy Law Group serves the Fort Worth and Dallas gay and lesbian community. Our attorneys are well-versed in the law and are experienced advocates for LGBT citizens. Call us today at (817) 857-4111.