Masterpiece Cakeshop

Legal experts weigh in on Supreme Court bakery ruling

Narrowness of decision makes predicting implications difficult


The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case was decided in favor of Lakewood baker Jack Phillips by a larger margin than many people expected. There’s a reason for that, explains Barbara Koehler, lecturer at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Criminal Justice and Criminology department. She has a Juris Doctor and was in private practice for 30 years.

“This is such a complex case on so many levels, but the court’s decision is actually pretty narrow,” she said. “The judges focused in on the actions of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and didn’t really address whether there was discrimination on the baker’s part.”

In its 7-2 decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, the Supreme Court decided that the commission’s actions violated the Free Exercise Clause. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor were the two dissenting voices in the ruling issued on June 4. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the court.

In July 2012 Phillips declined to make a custom wedding cake for same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins, citing his religious beliefs. After his refusal to bake the wedding cake, the couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission stating that Phillips violated the state’s public accommodations law that specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The commission ruled against Phillips in May 2014 and the appeals court upheld the decision in May 2015.

To understand the legal side of the issue, Colorado Community Media spoke to Koehler; Norman Provizer, another Metro State professor and director of the Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership and director of Leadership Studies; and Craig Konnoth, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s Colorado Law department, who wrote an amicus brief for the case for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

The following are key points that came up in CCM’s discussions with Koehler, Provizer and Konnoth:

• The court’s decision came down to the belief that Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission did not consider Phillips’ case free of religious bias. As Kennedy wrote:

“The delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach.”

• The decision was made in part because of a comment made by former Civil Rights Commission member Diann Rice after the ruling against Phillips had been made in 2014.

“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,” she said in the July 25, 2014 hearing.

“If nothing else, this case is a reminder to people that words matter,” Provizer said. “Especially when you have the weight of the state behind you.”

• The focus on the actions of the Civil Rights Commission and its members make it difficult to use the case as legal precedent for either side of the debate.

“People on both sides will quote language in the decision, but this is a very limited ruling,” Konnoth explained. “There’s not a lot to take away from this, except that the justices weren’t ready to make their mind up.”

• Colorado’s anti-discrimination law, which forbids businesses from discriminating against customers based on sexual orientation, is still in place.

Kennedy also wrote, “And any decision in favor of the baker would have to be sufficiently constrained, lest all purveyors of goods and services who object to gay marriages for moral and religious reasons in effect be allowed to put up signs saying ‘no goods or services will be sold if they will be used for gay marriages,’ something that would impose a serious stigma on gay persons.”

• Similar cases will undoubtedly arise until some kind of clear decision is given by the court about where religious freedom and discrimination meet, all three experts agreed.

“The issue isn’t even close to being settled yet,” Koehler said. “I saw some saying this was just one battle in a larger war, but it wasn’t even that. This was just a fist fight.”


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