The court ruled 7-2 on Monday in favor of self-described Colorado “cake artist” Jack Phillips, who six years ago cited his Christian faith when refusing to create a cake for the wedding ceremony of Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins. The ruling overturns the finding of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC), which determined the baker’s refusal to serve Craig and Mullins violated Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA).
That law and others like it require public business to serve people irrespective of their sexual orientation (among other factors). Phillips argued the CADA violated the First Amendment by compelling him to create a wedding cake—which he claims is artistic expression, and thus constitutionally protected speech. Some feared the court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission could carve out broad exceptions to such anti-discrimination laws under the guise of the First Amendment.
Monday’s opinion, penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, contained several passages inumerating the rights of LGBTQ people, though the court ultimately sided against Craig and Mullins. But the language in the decision made it clear that the outcome was tailored to this case exclusively, meaning it will not upend nationwide anti-discrimination laws (perhaps explaining the lopsided vote count in such a contentious case). Rather than evaluate the constitutionality of the anti-discrimination laws, the court found Phillips did not receive a fair and neutral hearing by the CCRC. The Supreme Court ruled that the lower administrative body violated the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution when it, as Monday’s decision put it, “showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating [Phillips’s] objection.” The opinion cites comments by the commissionioners—such as one who said Phillips is free to believe “what he wants to believe” but cannot act on those beliefs if he wants to do business in Colorado—as evidence of this hostility.
The opinion notes that even with what the court deems to be a fair hearing, Phillips could still lose. “The baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws,” writes Kennedy. Notably, the ruling sidesteps the thornier issues raised by the case, including whether claims of artistic expression mixed with religious belief can be used as way to circumvent state laws designed to prevent discrimination based on factors such as race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. In her dissent, Ginsburg wrote that the case does not “evidence hostility to religion of the kind we have previously held to signal a free-exercise violation,” and added that the comments of one or two members the CCRC—just one administrative body to evaluate the discrimination claim—cannot justify reversing the decision. “What matters,” she wrote “is that Phillips would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple.”