On June 4, 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of baker Jack Phillips, Petitioner in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., et. al. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, et. al. in a 7-2 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. The Court’s holding in the case was narrow, based on perceived bias in the adjudication process at the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Law Center filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in this case in support of the Respondents.
Five years ago, Respondents Charlie Craig and David Mullins visited Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado to order a cake for their wedding, but were denied service by the shop’s owner, Jack Phillips, who claimed that baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple went against his Christian beliefs. In response, the couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The Commission, and later the Colorado Court of Appeals, ruled in favor of the couple, but Phillips appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. The Petitioners then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In his decision, Justice Kennedy held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was hostile to Mr. Phillips on the basis of his religious beliefs, denying him a fair hearing. He based his assessment on comments made by some commissioners and on the Commission’s ruling in a similar case. “The commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the State’s duty under the First Amendment, not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoints,” Kennedy wrote.
In October 2017, in partnership with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and the Mississippi Center for Justice, we submitted an amicus brief in support of the Respondents in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., et al. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, et al.
We are disappointed that the discrimination was affirmed by the Supreme Court in their finding in favor of the Petitioners in this case. However, the narrow holding in this case, dealing solely with the Court’s judgement that the Commission failed to remain neutral when carrying out Phillips’ adjudication, makes us cautiously hopeful that the negative impact of this decision will be limited.
In our brief we argued that overturning the Colorado Court of Appeals’ decision would “…undermine decades of civil rights progress, and eviscerate public accommodation statutes across the country.” We do not believe, thankfully, that this decision will lead to widespread threats to public accommodation statutes. The court’s decision leaves intact the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act barring discrimination in public accommodation on the basis of sexual orientation. It seems as if this holding is confined to situations in which the facts are identical to this case.
However, we and other civil rights advocates remain vigilant for future challenges to these statutes. The results of dismantling public accommodations laws nationwide would be disastrous. These statutes are often tailored around a community’s values and needs, and frequently protect broader groups of people and entities than federal law. State public accommodation statutes are crucial for the work we do at the Public Interest Law Center in particular, as they “are essential to combating unlawful discrimination in public accommodations, employment, housing, education, and other areas.”
Mr. Phillips claimed that he has a right to deny service as an exercise of his free speech. We argued, however, that “…this case does not present a true First Amendment question, as there is no ‘speech’ at issue. The undisputed fact is that Mr. Phillips refused to serve Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullins before there was any talk of design or message. Mr. Phillips did not refuse to convey a specific message – he refused to serve specific people, based on their membership in a specific, protected class.”
In his decision, Justice Kennedy did not affirm Mr. Phillips’ free speech claim. “[A]ny decision in favor of the baker would have to be sufficiently constrained,” Kennedy wrote, “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.”
The brief concludes by noting that “…anti-discrimination laws would become meaningless and useless if this Court were to recognize a First Amendment right to discriminate based on the theory that merely serving a member of a protected class may imply expression of a particular point of view regarding that class of people. Petitioners’ free speech argument is limitless, unmanageable, and wrong.”