SCOTUS Rules in Favor of Anti-Gay Baker ‘Cause Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission Was Too Mean to Him

Today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, the Christian baker and owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who refused to make a wedding cake for same-sex couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig in July 2012. The Justices were split in their reasonings for the ruling, but ultimately only Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. LGBTQ advocates have been quick to point out the purposefully limited scope of the 7-2 decision. It doesn’t change any civil rights laws. In fact, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, said that while, in this particular case, Phillips’ religious reservations weren’t treated fairly by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, “the delicate question of when the free exercise of… religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power” was still an open and ongoing conversation. Essentially, outside of this specific case, the Supreme Court punted this “delicate question” back down to the lower courts.

SCOTUS’ decision focused almost completely on what they felt like the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did wrong in its original ruling that Phillips had violated the the state’s public accommodation law, which requires business to serve customers equally regardless of “disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry.” During that initial hearing, Kennedy wrote, the commission “disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.”

Ginsburg and Sotomayor argued that Phillips still violated the state’s anti-discrimination law, regardless of the comments made by a few commission members.

While LGBTQ activists are framing this as a narrow ruling, they’re also quickly pointing out the threat it poses to gay rights. Annise Parker, president of the Victory Fund, warned in a statement that “Homophobic forces will purposefully over-interpret the ruling and challenge existing non-discrimination laws by refusing service to LGBTQ people in even more situations.” GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis released a similar statement, echoing the sentiment: “Though freedom of religion is an American value, discrimination is not. While this SCOTUS decision does not change existing civil rights protections, it leaves the door wide open for religious exemptions to be used against LGBTQ people.”

In the Supreme Court’s view, these same-sex wedding cake cases — of which there are already many in the system — should be resolved without both showing “undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs” and “subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.” Which, as Mark Joseph Stern over at Slate noted, “won’t really help the lower courts as they grapple with nearly identical cases.”

Bottom line: The actual scope of the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling is small, almost a personal victory for Phillips; the symbolic loss for LGBTQ people is big; and the the only real lesson is that individual state anti-discrimination commissions should be as polite to the business owners oppressing minorities as they are to the minorities being oppressed if they’re looking for a sweeping ruling from the Supreme Court.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 726 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. “Homophobic forces will purposefully over-interpret the ruling and challenge existing non-discrimination laws by refusing service to LGBTQ people in even more situations.”

    Bet your ass they will do that.

  2. Sigh. What an awful and depressing news to read especially during pride month. I just wanna say f**k any useless human being who still has the audacity to say that nobody cares about your sexual orientation in today’s America or that LGBTQ people love to play the victim card as we have rights just like everyone else. Still heard two people saying that yesterday. Screw all of you.

    I’m just so pissed. Now people will use this to hold on to their belief that they aren’t homophobic but they are just having their own opinion

  3. thanks for the explanation. i was a bit worried it was gonna set a precedent like, nah my religion says women shouldn’t have bank accounts. but then i felt like what we’d need to do is convince apple or some big company ceo to adopt a religion that could be interpreted to mean that men can’t have computers, and just see what happens.

  4. It’s cold comfort, but this case was always a lose-lose situation from the get go, partly because of the case particulars, and partly because our legal system is so grossly tilted to favor the rich and powerful (the baker in this case was a pawn of rich and powerful people). The narrowness of the ruling might be the best one could have hoped for. The alternative, while maybe better for lgbtq rights in the short run symbolically, could also have been used against service providers choosing clients based on values too, which many of us want to be able to do. E.g. I do not want to make things for a nonprofit that vociferously opposes lgbtq+ rights.

    • I agree with you on this one. I actually believe that the judges made the right call. The main argument here is that cake making is a form of speech, not services. That’s the key to this case. This was ultimately a first amendment showdown. If I’m a wedding photographer or cake maker, I wouldn’t want to be required to make a nazi cake or even make a cake for someone who hates gay people. It’s tricky, but I get it.

      • I think this is a false equivalence. “Being a Nazi” is not and should not be a protected class. Being gay is.

        This is why we have the idea of protected classes. Some differences should be protected. Some shouldn’t.

        • The issue addressed in this case was “messages” not protected classes. If we were talking about refusing any kind of services to any gay person that would be something else entirely. I personally think anyone who won’t serve people because of who they are should put a sign up front making this clear to save people from needless letdowns and public humiliation.
          However, the state had apparently accepted the decisions of other bakers who refused to make cakes with anti-gay messages. The question comes down to whither requiring something to provide something with a message should be interpreted as having to approve that message. And this question must apply to ANY message.

          • BTW I’m not saying discrimination against people isn’t still at issue in these cases. Only that the bases of this very limited decision in particular case seemed mainly focused on the message part.

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