Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd and Others v Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Others, Case No. 16-111
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Date of judgment: 4 June 2018
On 4 June 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States (the Court), by a majority of 7-2, found in favour of Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd (Masterpiece), a Colorado bakery that refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple on the basis of the baker’s religious opposition to same-sex marriages.
In 2012, Mr Craig and Mr Mullins, a same-sex couple, visited the Masterpiece bakery in Colorado to make inquiries about ordering a cake for their wedding reception. At the time, the State of Colorado did not recognise same-sex marriages, and the couple therefore planned to wed in a different state and hold a reception in Colorado thereafter.
The bakery’s owner, Mr Phillips, refused to create a cake for the couple on the basis of him being a devout Christian and his religious opposition to same-sex marriages. According to the judgment:
[Mr Phillips] has explained that his ‘main goal in life is to be obedient to’ Jesus Christ and Christ’s ‘teachings in all aspects of his life.’ … And he seeks to ‘honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop.’ … One of Phillips’ religious beliefs is that ‘God’s intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman.’ … To Phillips, creating a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding would be equivalent to participating in a celebration that is contrary to his own most deeply held beliefs.
Following Mr Phillips’ refusal, the couple filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the Commission), alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA). The CADA provides that it is a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person to refuse, withhold or deny the full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of a place of public accommodation to any person because of, amongst other grounds, sexual orientation.
An investigation conducted by the Civil Rights Division of the Commission also found that Mr Phillips had on multiple occasions turned away potential customers on the basis of their sexual orientation. Before the Commission, Mr Phillips argued that compelling him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed, as well as violate his right to the free exercise of religion.
The Commission dismissed these arguments, finding in the couple’s favour and ordering Mr Phillips to cease and desist from discriminating against same-sex couples by refusing to sell them any product that he would sell to heterosexual couples. The Commission further ordered additional remedial measures, including training on the CADA, amendments to Masterpiece’s company policies to comply with the Commission’s order, and quarterly compliance reports for a period of two years documenting the number of patrons denied service.
The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s legal determinations and the remedial order, and the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear Mr Phillips’ appeal.
Before the Supreme Court of the United States
Findings of the majority (per Kennedy J)
At the outset, the majority noted that the case presents difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles: first, the authority of a state and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are or wish to be married, but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services; and the second, the rights of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. With regard to freedom of speech, the majority placed particular emphasis on Phillips’ contentions that, in baking a cake, “he had to use his artistic skills to make an expressive statement, a wedding endorsement in his own voice and of his own creation”.
The majority’s decision ultimately turned on the manner in which the matter had been handled by the Commission. In this regard, the majority held that the Commission’s consideration of the case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality, and that the treatment of his case contained elements of hostility towards the religious beliefs that motivated his objection. In particular, the Court pointed to statements made during the Commission’s public hearings into the matter, which included the following statement by one commissioner:
I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be – I mean, we – 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.
The majority held that the Commission’s treatment of Mr Phillips’ case was inconsistent with its treatment in other cases, and that certain statements made were inappropriate and dismissive, showing a lack of consideration for Mr Phillips’ exercise of his right. Accordingly, the decision of the Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals was set aside.
The majority did, however, note that the outcome of similar cases in the future may be resolved differently, stating that “cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
Findings of the minority (per Ginsburg J)
According to the minority dissent, the conduct and statements of the Commission referred to in the majority judgment did not evidence the kind of hostility to religion that had previously been held to be a violation, and the comments of one or two members of the Commission did not justify reversing the decision. With regard to the proceedings before the Commission, the minority noted that these proceedings involved several layers of independent decision-making, and was subsequently put before two independent courts. Furthermore, the majority judgment did not identify the specific prejudice it claimed arose from the identified statements made by the commissioners.
As stated in the minority judgment: “When a couple contacts a bakery for a wedding cake, the product they are seeking is a cake celebrating their wedding – not a cake celebrating heterosexual weddings or same-sex weddings – and that is the service Craig and Mullins were denied.” The minority went on to note that Mr Phillips declined to make a cake he found offensive where the offensiveness of the product was determined solely by the identity of the customer requesting it, and that this was impermissible.
Accordingly, the minority would have ruled that the sensible application of the CADA to a refusal to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple should have caused the decision of the Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals to be affirmed.
The full judgment is accessible here.
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