Monday, June 04, 2018

Supreme Court In Narrow Decision Reverses Order Against Wedding Cake Baker

Today, by a vote of 7-2, the U.S. Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, (Sup. Ct., June 4, 2018), reversed on narrow grounds a Colorado appellate court's decision upholding the state Civil Rights Commission's cease and desist order against a baker who refused on religious grounds to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  The Supreme Court's majority decision, written by Justice Kennedy, focused on what was seen as the unfairness of the hearing provided to the baker by the Commission, and the difference between this case and the approach in others decided by the Commission:
The Court’s precedents make clear that 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. Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach. That requirement, however, was not met here. When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.
In reaching that conclusion, the Court acknowledged the difficulties involved in deciding the broader issues posed by the case:
The free speech aspect of this case is difficult, for few persons who have seen a beautiful wedding cake might have thought of its creation as an exercise of protected speech. This is an instructive example, however, of the proposition that the application of constitutional freedoms in new contexts can deepen our understanding of their meaning.
One of the difficulties in this case is that the parties disagree as to the extent of the baker’s refusal to provide service. If a baker refused to design a special cake with words or images celebrating the marriage—for instance, a cake showing words with religious meaning—that might be different from a refusal to sell any cake at all.... 
The same difficulties arise in determining whether a baker has a valid free exercise claim. A baker’s refusal to attend the wedding to ensure that the cake is cut the right way, or a refusal to put certain religious words or decorations on the cake, or even a refusal to sell a cake that has been baked for the public generally but includes certain religious words or symbols on it are just three examples of  possibilities that seem all but endless.
Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion joined by Justice Breyer.  Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion joined by Justice Alito.  Justice Thomas filed a opinion concurring in part, joined by Justice Gorsuch.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, filed a dissenting opinion arguing that there was not sufficient evidence of unfair hostility by the Commission to the baker's religious beliefs.

Politico reports on the decision, as does SCOTUSblog.