What the “Masterpiece” decision said – and what it didn’t

The Supreme Court of the United States today handed down its decision in the case involving Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado bakery whose owner refused to prepare a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.  The baker won – but on the relatively narrow grounds that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not give him a fair hearing:

The Supreme Court ruled narrowly Monday for a Colorado baker who wouldn’t make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. But the court is not deciding the big issue in the case, whether a business can invoke religious objections to refuse service to gay and lesbian people.

The justices’ limited ruling turned on what the court described as anti-religious bias on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission when it ruled against baker Jack Phillips. The justices voted 7-2 that the commission violated Phillips’ rights under the First Amendment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion that the larger issue “must await further elaboration” in the courts. Appeals in similar cases are pending, including one at the Supreme Court from a florist who didn’t want to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

…when the justices heard arguments in December, Kennedy was plainly bothered by comments by a commission member. The commissioner seemed “neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs,” Kennedy said in December.

That same sentiment suffused his opinion on Monday. “The commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion,” he wrote.

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the conservative justices in the outcome. Kagan wrote separately to emphasize the limited ruling.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

The really thorny question, whether one’s religious convictions trump anti-discrimination laws, remains to be determined.   Conservative Rod Dreher, for one, thinks the decision may have gone the other way had the Civil Rights Commission not been so openly hostile:

The language of the ruling suggests that if the Colorado commission had given the appearance of fair dealing with the Christian baker, it could have ruled the same way and avoided today’s SCOTUS ruling. Or maybe not: the Court would have still had to deal with the question of why a Colorado cake baker can refuse to bake a cake with an anti gay marriage message, but not do what Jack Phillips did. If I’m reading this ruling correctly — and I invite critique — SCOTUS gave no direction for how that dilemma should be decided in the future. It only mandated that religious people should be given fair consideration, without indicating what kind of outcome would be fair.

What if a gay couple went to Masterpiece Cakeshop tomorrow and asked for a wedding cake, and Jack Phillips turned them down, and they go to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to complain? Could the Commission deliver the same verdict against Masterpiece, but do so in apparently neutral language, and therefore be on the right side of today’s ruling?

If not, why not? What’s to stop gay activists, who have tied this small business owner up in court for five years, from doing it again to him — and this time, expecting the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to be more careful to conceal its hostility to him?

I don’t mean to be ungrateful for this ruling, which I did not expect. (“Take the win, Debbie Downer,” teased a friend.) I do, however, want to caution against reading too much into this. The Court punted more fundamental conflicts down the road. This means that for religious liberty advocates, the future composition of the Supreme Court is massively important. We knew that anyway, but the narrowness of this decision proves it.

The ACLU, coming at this decision from the other side, appears to agree:

In reversing the lower court’s ruling, the Supreme Court focused on how this particular case was handled by the commission, which decides cases under Colorado’s nondiscrimination law. The court raised concerns about comments from some of the Colorado commissioners that they believed revealed anti-religion bias. Because of that bias, the court held that the bakery wasn’t treated fairly when the commission decided the discrimination claim.

But — despite arguments from the Trump administration and other opponents of LGBT equality — the court didn’t decide that any business has a right to discriminate against customers because of who they are. Instead, the court’s decision affirms again and again that our nation’s laws against discrimination are essential to maintaining America’s open society and that states can pass and enforce those laws, including in the context of LGBT people.

[…]

The court on Monday ruled for the bakery because it “was entitled to the neutral and respectful consideration of [its] claims in all the circumstances of the case,” and the justices in the majority believed the bakery didn’t receive that basic fairness. The court said that “these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

All of us deserve a dispassionate evaluation of our claims, either when we face discrimination or are accused of it. Those are principles we can all agree on.

Monday’s decision gives a very narrow victory to the bakery. But the court has clearly signaled that the broader rule the bakery was seeking here — a constitutional right to discriminate and turn customers away because of who they are — is not in keeping with American constitutional tradition.

There are many other cases in the pipeline that may soon give the court the opportunities to sort through the legal issues at the center of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. One is Ingersoll v. Arlene’s Flowers, in which a florist shop refused to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding. The Washington state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the shop had no constitutional right to turn the couple away, and a petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court remains pending.

For now, the main takeaway from the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling is that everyone, regardless of their beliefs, is entitled to a fair hearing by the state.

(I’d say everyone should be able to agree with that, but I’ve spent enough time on Twitter to know otherwise.)

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