CHICAGO – The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision, granting a win to a Colorado baker accused of violating the civil rights of a gay couple by refusing to bake a custom-designed cake for their wedding, could signal that, while the courts are upholding the civil rights of same-sex couples, it does not create a legal "open season" on others - including business owners - whose religious beliefs may not allow them to walk in step with society's rapidly changing values, say two attorneys who specialize in litigating religious freedom cases.
Lakewood, Colorado-based Masterpiece Cakeshop is owned by Jack Phillips, a baker and devout Christian. In 2012 Phillips told a couple he would not create a wedding cake for them because of his religiously-based opposition to same-sex marriage.
The couple filed charges with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, citing violations of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA). The commission found the bakery discriminated against the couple and, following appeals in state courts, reaffirmed the decision, prompting Phillips to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled June 4 the Colorado state commission had not employed religious neutrality and had violated Phillips’ right to free exercise. The high court reversed the commission's decision.
Phillips Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund
Joan Mannix, special counsel for the Thomas Moore Society, a social conservative law firm based in Chicago, said the Supreme Court decision reaffirmed the free exercise of religion as a fundamental freedom and made clear that states must approach the resolution of such conflicts with absolute neutrality.
“The case is important because there appears to be a sense among some people, including members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, that sincerely held religious beliefs cannot be just discounted as completely valueless, but reviled as despicable pieces of rhetoric,” Mannix told the Cook County Record. “The court reaffirmed that sincerely held religious beliefs must be protected and respected.”
Mannix said the court in the future will likely decide how freedom of expression and free exercise of religion should be balanced against the civil rights of same-sex couples when those interests conflict.
“When that time comes, the court will also likely have to address the scope of freedom of expression as it relates to various artistic forms such as the creation of custom made wedding cakes, floral arrangements and photography,” she said.
Mannix said a similar case is pending in the courts regarding a business called Arlene’s Flowers in Washington. In that case, Mannix said a gay couple was refused service, raising many of the same issues at play in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
“The petitioner in that case (Arlene’s Flowers) asked the Supreme Court to vacate a Washington Supreme Court decision and remand the case because of comments made by the state trial court, akin to those made by members of the (Colorado) commission,” Mannix said.
Richard C. Baker, an attorney with Mauck & Baker of Chicago, also agreed with the Supreme Court's decision in the Masterpiece case.
“We agree with the holding believing the manifest hostility shown by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was entirely inappropriate and justified the reversal of its tainted finding of discrimination,” Baker told the Cook County Record.
Baker said the hostility included comments likening Phillips to a racist and a Nazi.
“This hostility, the court found, was clear from its application of different standards in the religious baker’s case to that of similarly situated secular bakers who refused to create cakes with anti-gay marriage messages,” he said.
Baker said another key takeaway in the decision is that the Supreme Court ruling makes it clear that free-exercise rights can apply to businesses as well as churches, religious organizations and religious individuals.
“Many human rights tribunals and lower courts have heretofore denied religious businesses and commercial artists this important defense,” Baker said.
Baker said the Supreme Court sent an important message that it would not tolerate “open season” on people who sincerely hold religious beliefs that may run opposite those of the dominant culture.
“It’s a win for all and a step in the right direction to protecting everyone’s freedom to live within the dictates of their conscience,” he said.
Baker said the impact of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision outside of Colorado might help level the playing field for religious believers brought before human rights tribunals for exercising sincerely-held religious beliefs regarding marriage.
“In confirming commercial entities such as the Colorado baker are protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, it may also curb these tribunals from outright dismissing the conscience claims of persons whose sincerely held convictions run afoul of broadly-applied anti-discrimination laws,” he said.