On June 4, 2018, the United States Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm’n, 584 U.S. ___ (2018). This decision reversed a Colorado court of appeals’ ruling that a baker violated the state’s public accommodation law by refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple based on religious grounds. The Supreme Court’s narrowly crafted decision gives businesses little guidance on the interplay between public accommodation law and sincerely held religious views.
In 2012, the owner/baker of the Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jack Phillips, refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple based on the “teachings of the Bible,” claiming that doing so would endorse a relationship that ran counter to his religious views. The couple brought a complaint claiming that Phillips violated Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (“CADA”). The CADA prohibits persons from denying individuals the full and equal enjoyment of goods and services based on certain enumerated factors including sexual orientation. Phillips defended his actions based on his First Amendment Constitutional right to freedom of expression (he claimed the cake was an artistic creation which involved speech) and freedom of religion. The case presented the Court with an opportunity to resolve whether the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment trumps public accommodation laws. Businesses providing goods and services to the public were no doubt expecting guidance on this contentious issue.
In a 7-2 decision, however, the Court sidestepped the issue. Instead, the Court ruled in favor of the baker on narrow grounds that will have little or no application to similar disputes. In short, the Court’s decision provides little guidance on whether public accommodation laws must give way to a business’s exercise of First Amendment rights.
Like the lower courts and tribunals, which held against Phillips, the Court recognized the right of Colorado to prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation based on sexual orientation. The Court also recognized that religious and philosophical objections generally “do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodation law.” While these principles seemed to support the same-sex couple’s claim of unlawful discrimination, the majority found that the decision below was tainted by a Colorado Civil Rights Commissioner’s impermissible bias against the baker’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
Among other things, one Commissioner’s hostility was reflected in his statement that “religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust . . . we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.” As a result, the Commissioner ruled against Phillips indicating his refusal was not protected and violated the CADA. The majority concluded that this statement disparaged religion because it described Phillips’s invocation of his sincerely-held religious views as “despicable” and “rhetorical,” and compared Phillips’s religious-based defense to justifications used to defend slavery and the holocaust.
The Supreme Court also noted three cases in which the Civil Rights Division ruled in favor of other bakers who lawfully refused to create cakes with anti-gay marriage images accompanied by religious text. The Colorado Civil Rights Division (Commission) found in favor of these bakers partly because they deemed the words and images to be derogatory. The Court found that the deference given to these conscience-based objections contrasted with the treatment afforded Phillips’s religious-based objections. In short, the United States Supreme Court held that the Commission had not consistently applied the CADA when ruling against Phillips.
An important piece of the Masterpiece Cakeshop is its language that any alleged freedom of religion or freedom of speech objections to complying with anti-discrimination public accommodation laws should be narrowly construed. The Court observed that “it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.” The Court went on to say that, unless First Amendment defenses are limited, “a long list of persons who provide goods or services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations.” While Masterpiece Cakeshop ruled against the same-sex couple based on unique facts (a biased Commission), the United States Supreme Court re-affirmed the rights of persons protected by public accommodation laws and suggests that exceptions will be narrowly applied.
For employers, because there has been widespread media coverage of this case, it is important that its managers, supervisors, and employees truly understand the holding of this case. People hear that the baker who refused to bake a cake for a same sex couple won based on his religious rights and believe they too can rely on this position. Such a belief disregards how narrow and unique the Masterpiece Cakeshop holding is. Employers must, in an increasing complex clash of legal rights, analyze the rights at issue and determine when and if an employee’s right can be reasonably accommodated without running afoul of other competing laws.
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