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Supreme Court Decides Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

On June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.   The Court addressed the question of whether religious beliefs must give way to state anti-discrimination laws.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. is a Colorado bakery owned and operated by Jack Phillips, a skilled baker and devout Christian.  In July of 2012, a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins went to the bakery and requested that Mr. Phillips design and create a cake for their wedding.  Mr. Phillips told the same-sex couple that he would not create a cake for their wedding celebration because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriages, marriages which were unrecognized by Colorado at the time.  Instead, Phillips offered to sell the same-sex couple other types of baked goods such as cookies, brownies, birthday cakes, etc.

The same-sex couple filed charges with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging sexual orientation discrimination under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.  This Colorado state law prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation in a “place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services…to the public.”  Mr. Phillips argued that requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to Free Speech and Free Exercise of Religion, protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found in favor of the same-sex couple.  The decision of the Commission was affirmed on appeal, so Mr. Phillips took his case to the United States Supreme Court.

The 9 justices on the Supreme Court voted 7 to 2 in favor of Mr. Phillips and reversed the lower court’s finding.  The Supreme Court found that the Colorada Civil Rights Commission exhibited clear and impermissible hostility against Mr. Phillips.  Justice Kennedy wrote on behalf of the Court that the “laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must protect gay persons and gay couples in the exercise of their civil rights, but religious and philosophical objections to gay marriages are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”

The Supreme Court stated that the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act must be applied in a neutral manner towards religion.  The Court pointed to specific statements made by the Commissioners which disparaged Phillips’ religious beliefs as well as specific instances which showed disparate treatment towards Phillips and other Colorado bakers who refused to bake same-sex wedding cakes.   The Court concluded that Phillips was not given a neutral and respectful consideration of his claim, afforded by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision did not, however, directly address the tension between protections for LGBT rights, on the one hand, and the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion on the other.

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