By David G. Savage
The Supreme Court ruled narrowly Monday for a Christian baker who refused to make a same-sex wedding cake, deciding that he was a victim of religious bias on the part of the state's civil rights commission.
But the 7-2 ruling, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, stressed the importance of maintaining equal rights for gays and lesbians.
"The exercise of their freedoms on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts," wrote Kennedy, who has penned several decisions upholding the rights of gays and lesbians.
He cautioned that law does "not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law."
But in this case, Kennedy said, the Colorado civil rights commission displayed "hostility" to Jack Phillips, the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop. Kennedy cited comments by a member of the state commission who had said that religion was often used a basis for bigotry.
Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer joined with their more conservative colleagues to form the majority.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
The case has been widely seen as a clash between religious liberties and gay rights. It also reflected a conservative backlash against the Supreme Court's ruling in 2015 holding that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry in all states.
But Kennedy and the court chose the narrowest possible way to resolve the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
The justices did not say that store owners like Phillips had a right to an exemption from the state's civil rights law based on their sincere religious beliefs. Lawyers for Phillips had argued that forcing him to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple violated his rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.
Instead, the court said Phillips was treated unfairly by the civil rights commission, and for this reason alone, he should win his case.
"The commission's hostility (to Phillips and his religious beliefs) was inconsistent with the 1st Amendment's guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion," Kennedy wrote. "Phillips was entitled to a neutral decision-maker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection."
But he said this ruling would not apply to other similar disputes. "The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts," he said. These "disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek good and services in the open market."
Kennedy also spoke for the court in its 2015 ruling that upheld same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.
Speaking then for a 5-4 majority, he said marriage is a fundamental right, and "it demeans gays and lesbians for the state to lock them out" of having legal recognition of their marriages. "They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right," he wrote.
But he conceded that some people would strongly disagree based on their religious beliefs and said the 1st Amendment ensured they would have "proper protection" when expressing their contrary views.
In the wake of the marriage ruling, conservative religious-rights advocates led by the Alliance Defending Freedom sought to establish a right to refuse to help celebrate a same-sex marriage. The Arizona-based group brought suits on a behalf of a wedding photographer in New Mexico, a florist in Washington state and the Colorado baker whose case reached the Supreme Court.
Colorado is one of 22 states whose civil rights laws require businesses that are open to the public to serve all customers on an equal basis and without regard to their sexual orientation.
Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the two men who were turned away by Phillips, filed a complaint with the state, and its civil rights commission decided unanimously he had indeed violated the state's law. Phillips was told that he must make wedding cakes on an equal basis, but he chose to suspend this part of his business. His store remains in operation, but he no longer creates custom cakes.
He appealed the state's decision, but lost in the Colorado courts. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the state's action violated his rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion protected by the 1st Amendment.
(c)2018 Los Angeles Times