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.