AG calls ruling on same-sex wedding cake ‘a landmark victory’

June 4, 2018 GMT

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out a discrimination finding against a Colorado baker who wouldn’t make a cake to celebrate a same-sex wedding, in a narrow ruling that doesn’t resolve broad constitutional questions about the dueling rights of gay people and business owners.

Voting 7-2, the court said the Colorado Civil Rights Commission finding in the baker’s case was tainted by animus toward religion. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed to one commissioner’s comments that religion had been used to justify slavery and the Holocaust and that invoking religion to hurt others is “despicable.”

“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,” Kennedy wrote.

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Kennedy, however, made clear that the court wasn’t deciding whether other business owners have a right not to take part in gay weddings, saying those issues “must await further elaboration in the courts.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Two other members of the court’s liberal wing, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joined the majority while writing separately to say they read court’s opinion as a limited one.

The Civil Rights Commission had required bakery owner Jack Phillips to either make cakes for gay weddings or stop making custom wedding cakes at all.

The dispute began in 2012, before gay marriage was legal in Colorado, when David Mullins and Charlie Craig visited Phillips’ suburban Denver bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop. The two men wanted a cake for a reception they planned to hold in Colorado after they married in Massachusetts.

Phillips told the couple he didn’t make cakes for same-sex weddings, prompting them to file a civil rights complaint. State officials joined the case against Phillips, and a Colorado appeals court ruled against the bakery.

Kennedy said both sides in the case raised legitimate concerns.

“Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” he wrote. “For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights.”

He added: “At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that the high court “rightly concluded that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to show tolerance and respect for Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.”

The Trump administration had urged a limited ruling for Phillips that would protect bakers, musicians, photographers and other wedding vendors whose work involves expression.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who led a 20-state coalition that last year filed an amicus brief in support of Phillips, called the ruling “a landmark victory for our first liberties of religious freedom and freedom of speech.”

“The Supreme Court’s ruling affirms that the First Amendment contains robust protections for people who choose to operate their business consistent with their faith,” he added.

The court will have another chance to resolve the broader questions soon. The justices have been deferring action on a similar appeal pressed by a florist in Washington state and could act on that appeal as early as next Monday. The court could accept the appeal for consideration during the nine-month term that starts in October.

The core holding focused on comments made by two of the Colorado commission’s seven members during its consideration of the case in 2014. Then-Commissioner Diann Rice said religion “has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust.”

She added, “To me, it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use, to use their religion to hurt others.”

Kennedy said those comments disparaged religion and “cast doubt on the fairness an impartiality of the commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case.”

In her dissenting opinion, Ginsburg said she saw “no reason why the comments of one or two commissioners should be taken to overcome Phillips’ refusal to sell a wedding cake to Craig and Mullins.”

Gay-rights advocates offered mixed reactions. The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Craig and Mullins, applauded the parts of the decision that reaffirmed the general ability to states to enforce anti-discrimination laws.

“The court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision based on concerns unique to the case but reaffirmed its long-standing rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people,” said Louise Melling, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.

But Rachel Tiven, chief executive of Lambda Legal, said the court “has offered dangerous encouragement to those who would deny civil rights to LGBT people and people living with HIV.”

Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner of the advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, said Colorado “was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage.”

“The court was right to condemn that,” she said. “Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a society like ours.”