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On Baking Cakes and Discrimination

On June 4th, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., in the bakery’s case against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The bakery’s owner, Jack Phillips, found himself in the middle of a national controversy when he refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Phillips stated his personal religious beliefs did not allow him to provide the cake for the couple, because he did not approve of same-sex marriage.

In 2012, Phillips’s bakery was approached by a newly-engaged couple seeking a wedding cake. David Mullins and Charlie Craig intended to marry in Massachusetts, but wanted a cake for their reception in Colorado. Phillips declined the request on the basis of his religious beliefs, not wanting to support a lifestyle that conflicted with his religious beliefs. Mullins and Craig filed a complaint to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, stating that they had been unduly discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. The Civil Rights Commission ruled in their favor, as did the state courts in further rulings.

The case reached the Colorado Court of Appeals, which ruled that Phillips’s right to free speech had not been infringed upon. Phillips did not want to make a statement of support of the couple, but it is likely that anyone seeing the cake would not interpret it as such. The couple did not even discuss the design of the cake before Phillips refused to make it. Phillips remained free, in his own time, to express his view about same-sex marriage, without infringing upon the rights of others.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission made its way to the Supreme Court, where 7 Justices voted in favor of the bakery’s right to refuse service. However, the case isn’t that straightforward. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion focused mainly on the alleged mistreatment of Phillips by the Civil Rights Commission. He stated that members of the CRC expressed “impermissible hostility” towards certain religious beliefs. It is the duty of the CRC to enforce anti-discrimination laws in a fair and neutral way, without singling out certain ideologies or beliefs.

In the end, the court did not clearly affirm or deny the rights of same-sex couples to be served at religious establishments such as Masterpiece Cakeshop. The ruling was based on such narrow grounds that it failed to make any real decisions about same-sex couples. However, Justice Kennedy’s opinion stated, “Colorado law can protect gay persons, just as it can protect other classes of individuals, in acquiring whatever products and services they choose on the same terms and conditions as offered to other members of the public.” Kennedy has been a long-standing proponent of gay rights but simultaneously a tenacious supporter of free speech. In 2015, he wrote the majority opinion for a case that recognized the constitutional right to marry someone of the same sex. He has historically called for reconciliation between supporters of gay marriage and those who oppose it on the basis of religion.

Gay rights advocates viewed the outcome of this case as deeply negative, offering encouragement to others who seek to deny rights to same-sex couples. Some worry this narrow decision will be broadly misinterpreted as a license to discriminate, despite Justice Kennedy’s specific language affirming the protection of everyone.

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