The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but the narrow decision does not allow businesses or employers to discriminate because of sexual orientation, attorneys warn.
In a 7-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not properly consider the free exercise clause rights of Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who said it went against his religious beliefs to sell a cake for a same-sex wedding.
However, Cynthia Doll, an attorney with law firm Fisher Phillips, said the decision does not create any sort of safe harbor for businesses defending bias claims.
“Instead, this narrow decision is more of a rebuke to the state commission that expressed impermissible hostility toward the baker’s religious beliefs when ruling on this case, requiring the commission to reconsider its earlier action,” Doll wrote in a legal alert Monday.
The ruling stems from the 2012 wedding of David Mullins and Charlie Craig, who got married in Massachusetts but planned a celebration ceremony in their home state of Colorado.
They requested a cake from Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., but Phillips refused. The couple filed charges of discrimination with the state civil rights commission, and an administrative judge initially ordered Masterpiece to design and sell wedding cakes for same-sex unions, among various other steps to comply with anti-discrimination laws.
The bakery appealed and ultimately the case ended up before the Supreme Court, where the baker argued that compelling him to make a cake that celebrates same-sex marriage violated the free-speech clause of the First Amendment, and that the government was targeting him because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.
Doll wrote that the Supreme Court’s ruling in his favor was based on evidence that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had treated Phillips’ case differently than other similar cases.
But the ruling specifically warned that “any decision in favor of the baker would have to be sufficiently constrained, lest all purveyors of goods and services who object to gay marriages for moral and religious reasons in effect be allowed to put up signs saying ‘no goods or services will be sold if they will be used for gay marriages,’ something that would impose a serious stigma on gay persons.”
The ruling, however, left room for further elaboration in the courts on protections for gay rights.
“Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” the Supreme Court said.
In her analysis, Doll said businesses should heed those words when making decisions about the work they perform for their guests and customers.
“Today’s decision should not be read to permit employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or other protected category, no matter the strength of a business owner’s religious beliefs,” Doll wrote. “If an issue arises which pits your religious beliefs against a law of general application, you should seek counsel on the appropriate course of action — but recognize that today’s decision affords you no safe harbor.”
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
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