The Supreme Court today reversed a Colorado Court of Appeals decision finding that a bakery owner discriminated against a same-sex couple by refusing to make a cake for their wedding based on religious grounds. While the Court did not rule that wedding vendors and other business owners have a right to refuse service to same-sex couples, it did say the state agency reviewing the case violated the baker’s First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion.
So, what could’ve been a landmark ruling on the balance between religious freedom and equal rights turned on more procedural grounds. Here’s a look:
Equal Protection and Religious Freedom
It was a balancing act from the start, as the Court acknowledged:
The 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.
While the Court conceded that Colorado law could protect gay peoples’ right to equal treatment and access to products and services, that law “must applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.” And, according to the Court, that didn’t happen in this case.
Writing for the 7-2 majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was sympathetic to Jack Phillips’ religious opposition to same-sex marriage, and declared that the Colorado Civil Rights Division “showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection”:
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.
Those comments, according to the Court, compromised the “neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled,” and therefore “cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality” of his hearing. Thus, the finding that Phillips violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws was invalidated.
Present Ruling and Future Precedent
The Court was careful to parse its ruling and avoid any determination about whether even sincerely held religious objections to same-sex marriage could allow businesses to deny service to gay people, and advise that future cases may be decided differently:
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.
The decision could also be read as a signal to state agencies and courts that, if they are going to find that a person or business discriminated against gay customers, they need to be nicer about it.