In a recipe combining ingredients of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and civil liberties – with a dash of discrimination – the conclusion of a six-year legal battle was reached the month when the Supreme Court ruled on Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., et al. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission et al.
The case has captured national attention, heated media debates, and even garnered death threats for the Colorado baker. In 2012, Jack Philips, the artistic owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop who specialized in hand-painting decorations onto cakes and baked goods, declined to make a wedding cake for a gay couple due to his devout Christian beliefs. Philips did not refuse to serve the couple baked goods in any other capacity and he told them they were welcome to order a birthday cake or order any other type of baked goods, such as brownies or cookies.
The couple filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission which found Philips’ actions to be discriminatory and brought a hearing before a Colorado Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who ruled that Philips’ First Amendment rights did not allow him to decline to refuse to bake the cake. Philips’ appealed the decision and lost which led to approaching the Supreme Court. In response to his actions being found unlawful by a lower court, Philips stopped making wedding cakes altogether, claims to have lost 40 percent of his business, and being harassed (i.e. death threats, questionable reviews on Yelp citing cockroaches and racism, and requests for satanic themed birthday cakes). Also notable is a level of backing Philips has received from gays who support his decision in the name of protecting civil liberties for all.
The June 4th 7-2 Supreme Court decision ruled in Philips favor, citing a number of interesting legal perspectives, including that of Free Exercise Clause and application of the law in a manner of neutrality with regard to religion required by the Constitution.
Earlier rulings had likened Philips’ religious beliefs to the convictions used to justify the Holocaust and slavery, a viewpoint which Justice Kennedy found to be hostile as opposed to neutral. Another aspect of this case is the timing of the incident with regard to the legalization of gay marriage – in 2012, Colorado had yet to recognize same-sex marriage, and the Federal government had also not yet legalized such.
According to Justice Kennedy’s written opinion, Philips was not the first baker refusing to create a particular cake who wound up before the Commission, however. The previous bakers, who found their respective cake requests to be either hateful or discriminatory, were treated in a favorable manner. Why does this matter? In part, it speaks to whether a cake’s messaging reflects on the purchaser or the cake creator – and whether it falls under free speech. The previous bakers found the requested messages to be inconsistent with their beliefs, however, said beliefs were secular and not religious.
Notorious RBG’s dissenting opinion (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) states that any couples’ wedding cake reflects their personal wedding and should not be viewed as a statement or commentary either endorsing or opposing heterosexual or same-sex marriage. Judge Ginsberg maintained that the Commission had not shown hostility to Philips nor had it shown preferential treatment to previous bakers refusing to create a certain type of cake. One baker, who specialized in bible shaped cakes, refused to make with one with an anti-gay message. Judge Ginsberg emphasized that Philips was not asked to create a cake with a discriminatory message, rather to simply provide the same good or service to a gay person that he would have provided to a straight person.
A key aspect to this ruling is that it is narrow – the majority opinion and ruling only applies to this specific case and does not necessarily have sweeping implications for, or against, future cases of a similar nature.
A concise summary can be found here.
To read the all of the justices’ opinions, visit the Supreme Court’s website.