On June 4, 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in favor of the baker whose shop had refused to prepare a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, in a long-awaited decision concerning religious freedom and discrimination against LGBTQ persons.
While the Court overturned the Commission's ruling that the baker discriminated against the same-sex couple, the Haas Institute notes that the Court’s majority opinion in fact reaffirms the dignity and equal rights of LGBTQ persons. The justices focused the case on disparaging comments made by a commissioner about religion, rather than the right of a business to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientations. Specifically, the Supreme Court was apprehensive about a commissioner’s comment that religion is “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” to justify discrimination.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission is a state administrative agency that looks at cases involving discrimination. The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the Commission's ruling before the baker filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing on behalf of the Court, emphasized that the ruling was not a broad, sweeping denial of rights of the LGBTQ community, and instructed lower courts to consider similar disputes in the future “without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.” Justice Kennedy’s opinion endorses the fundamental principle that the free exercise clause cannot be used to create an exception to civil rights laws.
This ruling should have precedential value only on how religious practice should be treated by a state administrative agency. It leaves much-anticipated questions regarding discrimination against same-sex couples due to religious views or freedom of expression unanswered. The Court on June 25 also signalled it would not consider similar cases in which businesses refused services to LGBTQ persons by sending those cases back to lower courts, creating further uncertainty over those unresolved issues.
And while the Haas Institute appreciates that the Court was explicit in affirming the rights of LGBTQ persons, we also express concern that its decision fails to nurture social cohesiveness and well-being, leaving room for the gradual chipping away at legal protections and freedoms for members of the LGBTQ community.
With this in mind, we remain hopeful about future progress and reaffirm the Institute’s commitment to promoting a fair and inclusive society that respects diverse forms of kinship and social connections.