On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that a Colorado baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple did not violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws. Owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop Jack Phillips cited religious beliefs that oppose gay marriage as his reason for refusing service to David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012.
In 2014, after the couple filed an official complaint, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission declared that Phillips had violated state law — an assertion that was backed by Colorado state courts. The case was originally sent to the Supreme Court in September 2016, and in June 2017, the justices finally agreed to hear the case.
The court’s opinion is a narrow one, with justices arguing that, in this instance, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated Phillips’ first amendment right to freedom of religious expression. Legal experts say that the ruling is not indicative of how future cases regarding religious freedom and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity will be decided. However, it does set a precedent for business owners who deny service to same-sex couples, suggesting that it may be within their legal rights to do so even if they live in one of the 21 states that, like Colorado, prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — the same justice who penned the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that same-sex marriage is a fundamental human right in June 2015 — the court’s opinion states that this and future disputes must be resolved with a respect toward “sincere religious beliefs” while preventing gay people from being subjected to “indignities.”
The Supreme Court’s decision comes at a time when many lawsuits regarding the rights of LGBTQ individuals are circulating in the nation’s courts. Such cases are examining whether religious objections are legitimate grounds for denying service to customers, hiring or firing employees, not covering employees’ healthcare costs, and refusing adoption and foster care placements. The ruling also comes as many begin to speculate as to whether the court’s three oldest justices are considering retirement. Should they choose to step down, President Donald Trump will have the opportunity to replace them and the potential to swing the court toward the religious freedom side of this highly polarized debate, which would likely significantly affect LGBTQ rights.
Religious conservatives and LGBTQ activists approach such cases from separate and, at times, seemingly incompatible perspectives. Advocates for religious freedom want business owners like Phillips to be able to express their religious beliefs openly, while civil rights advocates are concerned that such practices allow for blatant discrimination.