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U.S. Supreme Court Hands Victory to Colorado Baker in Landmark Clash Over Religion, Civil Rights

June 4, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Colorado baker had the legal right to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his own religious objections to same-sex marriage.

The landmark 7-2 decision in favor of Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, likely gives business owners nationwide a larger legal shield to run their companies in the mold of whatever faith they follow - though how much larger is up for debate.

The ruling also sets the stage for new clashes with the civil rights movement, which opposed Phillips’ argument on the grounds it would legally bless corporate discrimination against same-sex couples and give cover to other forms of prejudice based on religion.

Still, attorneys with the ACLU - which supported the couple - viewed the ruling as a narrow one that won’t have wide-ranging repercussions.

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

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The origin of the high-stakes legal battle was Phillips’ refusal in 2012 to design and bake a wedding cake for fiancés Charlie Craig and David Mullins. After the couple was denied, they filed discrimination charges with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission , which agreed with Craig and Mullins. The Colorado Court of Appeals did, too, but Phillips pressed his cause until the Supreme Court agreed last summer to take the case.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion of the high court, took particular aim at the actions of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in the 7-2 decision. (Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor).

He wrote that Phillips did not get a fair shake before the commission, which was “neither tolerant nor respectful of his religious beliefs.”

Kennedy added: “As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.”

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The high court heard arguments Dec. 5, and much of the attention during the 90-minute debate focused on Justice Kennedy, the sought-after swing vote in the case.

Kennedy was behind the landmark 2105 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage, but his jurisprudence has shown affinity too for religious freedom.

The case is Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

This story is developing.