One of the most anticipated rulings of the Spring Term was issued by the Supreme Court on June 4, 2018. In a 7-2 decision, the Court ruled that baker Jack Phillips was treated with hostility for his religious views by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission when they ruled that he could not refuse to make a gay couple a wedding cake.
It was not the sweeping ruling that many anticipated. The decision focused on the unique attributes of this case, rather than providing a more definite ruling that would be applied in the future to cases involving conflicts of gay marriage and vendors’ religious freedom. More specifically, the Opinion focused on the fact that members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission treated Mr. Phillips with hostility for his religious beliefs. The Opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, stated that the commissioners, “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.” He went on to say that, “the law must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.”
Justice Kennedy—a champion of LGBT rights and religious freedom in his jurisprudence—seemed aware of the weight this decision could carry, and noted that it did not set in stone a new precedent. He stated in his Opinion:
[BLOCK QUOTE] “The outcome of 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,”
This case came down to some of the comments that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission made in the course of its decision-making. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that the members who made the comments regarding the Holocaust and slavery should not have sway over how the Supreme Court made its decision. She stated:
[BLOCK QUOTE] “Statements made at the Commission’s public hearings on Phillips’ case provide no firmer support for the Court’s holding today. Whatever one may think of the statements in historical context, I see 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 [the couple who initially filed the complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission],”
But Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion disagreed, arguing that, “[t]he laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect gay persons and gay couples in the exercise of their civil rights, but religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.” Touching on Colorado’s own anti-discrimination law, he said it was, “a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”
Although the decision was slightly different than what was anticipated, it is still an important addition to the modern legal cannon. While businesses must comply with states’ anti-discrimination laws (See Delaware’s here), those laws extend protections to religious freedoms as well. If your business is facing a conflict between the State’s anti-discrimination statutes and its fundamental moral tenants, seek legal guidance to ensure that your business isn’t the one to provide Justice Kennedy with the opportunity to clarify the law on this issue!