This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-2 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The decision is a bit of an odd duck. The court repeatedly reaffirmed our nation’s commitment to combating discrimination against LGBTQ people in businesses open to the public. Yet the court holds in favor of a bakery that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
That may sound strange. But the principles aren’t necessarily in tension, given the unique facts of the case and the narrow ruling by the court. The justices viewed the state agency that first considered the case as having been biased against the bakery. The court also noted that the state agency allowed other bakeries to refuse to bake cakes with anti-LGBTQ messages, and the court thought that the commission hadn’t treated Masterpiece Cakeshop’s refusal the same way.
The court did not hold that the bakery (or any business) has a religion-based right to refuse to serve same-sex couples. In fact, the majority opinion repeatedly highlights that the government has strong interests in ensuring equal access to goods and services for LGBTQ people, and in combatting the stigma that arises from refusals of service. Because combatting discrimination is so important, the court recognized, businesses must not subject members of protected groups to “indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, strongly hinted that in the absence of the comments about religion made by a couple of members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, this case would have come out in favor of the couple. As Justice Kagan explained, Masterpiece Cakeshop refuses to sell to same-sex couples the very same cakes that it sells to opposite-sex couples. The bakery does not have a religious-freedom right to violate the basic and incredibly important protections against discrimination that Colorado extends to everyone.
In contrast, Justice Kagan notes, the other bakeries that the court mentioned, which had refused to bake anti-LGBTQ cakes, would not have sold those cakes to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, race, religion or any other protected status. It’s not discriminatory to refuse to rent a room or serve a meal or bake a cake for some people if you don’t provide that service to anyone. Discrimination is selectively selling to some people and not others based on who they are.
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser and other staff members joined our allies outside the Supreme Court this morning for a rally in support of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the couple turned away by Masterpiece Cakeshop. Laser explained that religious freedom should be a shield to protect religious exercise, not a sword to harm and discriminate against others.
This decision should not have any effect on similar cases pending in courts across the country. Indeed, the justices themselves said that today’s ruling doesn’t decide even other cases with similar facts. So today’s decision is far from the last word on the subject.
Americans United, which is involved in those other cases, will continue to fight in court for the rights of all to live free from discrimination. In a pluralistic society like the United States, religious freedom is truly achieved only if businesses remain open to all regardless of their beliefs.