The Supreme Court of the United States released its decision on the highly anticipated Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case on June 4. In a 7-2 decision, the high court sided with Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, noting that his First Amendment right to freedom of religious exercise was violated.
While the split among the justices was a wide margin of 7-2, the opinion of the Court is being described as a narrow due to the scope of the decision. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted:
Phillips was entitled to the neutral and respectful consideration of his claims in all the circumstances of the case. . . . The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here, however. The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.
In essence, commissioners on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission expressed animus regarding the religious beliefs of Jack Phillips and were unable to adjudicate the merits of his claim due to such animus. Thus, Phillips’ rights were violated because his deeply held religious beliefs were judged unfairly by the commission.
Kennedy also noted that the commission had treated other similar cases differently. On three separate occasions, the commission ruled in favor of bakers who refused to produce cakes with messages that disapproved of same-sex marriage while also bearing religious texts. The commission allowed those bakers to refuse service but still compelled Phillips to produce cakes in support of same-sex marriage.
Kennedy concludes his opinion by emphasizing the narrow scope of the opinion. He writes:
The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided. In this case the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward in the respects noted above. However later cases raising these or similar concerns are resolved in the future, for these reasons the ruling of the Commission and of the state court that enforced the Commission’s order must be invalidated.
What does this Supreme Court decision mean for religious liberty? On one hand, it is a victory for Jack Phillips and others whose religious liberty has been violated because government officials disagreed with their religious beliefs. On the other hand, this case does not set a clear precedent moving forward for religious liberty on a wider scale.
Those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds have increasingly found themselves on the outside looking in. The general attitude toward same-sex marriage in the United States has rapidly become more favorable since the Obergefell decision in 2015. As a result, it is likely that many business owners who refuse to promote same-sex marriage with their goods and services will face similar ridicule and animosity on the part of those adjudicating their cases in the courts. In such circumstances, this case sets a helpful precedent because religious beliefs must be considered with neutrality in the courts and commissions. Thus, anyone who faces such animosity can immediately use this Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion to find remedy.
What this case does not do is set a precedent for all business owners to refuse service in matters of same-sex marriage. Kennedy notes this limitation in his opinion, and Justice Thomas makes it even clearer. Thomas writes:
In Obergefell, I warned that the Court’s decision would “inevitabl[y] . . . come into conflict” with religious liberty, “as individuals . . . are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” This case proves that the conflict has already emerged. Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day. But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to “stamp out every vestige of dissent” and “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” If that freedom is to maintain its vitality, reasoning like the Colorado Court of Appeals’ must be rejected.
This case gives a temporary and limited victory to proponents of traditional marriage. For the time being, the “new orthodoxy” of same-sex marriage has not overrun those who believe that God created marriage to be a union between one man and one woman. However, this case does not give blanket protection in the future. It is a first step in the protection of our first freedom in the United States, but further steps are still necessary.
Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018). Full text of the opinion is available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-111_new_d1of.pdf.