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June 04, 2018

Supreme Court Decides Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

On June 4, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111, holding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by failing to neutrally and respectfully consider the sincere religious beliefs of a baker who refused to create a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

In 2012, a same-sex couple visited Masterpiece Cakeshop (Masterpiece), a bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, and inquired about ordering a cake for their wedding reception. Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece and an expert baker, informed the couple that he would not create a wedding cake for their reception because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

The couple filed a discrimination complaint against Masterpiece and Phillips with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, alleging that Phillips’s refusal to create the cake violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), a Colorado statute that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and other protected characteristics in public accommodations. The Civil Rights Division found probable cause for a violation of CADA and referred the matter to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the Commission). An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled in favor of the couple, rejecting Phillips’s arguments that requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talent to express a message with which he disagreed, and would violate his right to the free exercise of religion. The Commission affirmed the ALJ’s ruling and ordered Phillips to cease and desist from discriminating against same-sex couples, train his staff on the public accommodation section of CADA, and provide quarterly reports to the Commission documenting the number of patrons denied service and the reasons for the denials. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Court explained that under the Free Exercise Clause, the Commission was required “to proceed in a manner neutral toward and tolerant of Phillips’ religious beliefs.” A state and its governmental agencies “cannot impose regulations that are hostile to the religious beliefs of affected citizens and cannot act in a manner that passes judgment upon or presupposes the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices.” The Court concluded that the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’s case did not comply with this constitutional obligation. Specifically, at two Commission meetings, commissioners made comments that “disparage[d]” Phillips’s religion “by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere.” Based on these comments, the Court concluded that “Phillips’ religious objection [to creating the cake] was not considered with the neutrality that the Free Exercise Clause requires.”

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch joined. Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined. Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Sotomayor joined.

Download Opinion of the Court

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