The Supreme Court’s June 4 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was narrow, but that doesn’t mean it was sensible. Indeed, it’s a problematic ruling and ill-considered to boot.
The case concerned two men, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, who were turned away from a bakery in Colorado when they sought a cake for their wedding. The bakery would have been happy to make a cake for an opposite-sex couple, but it refused service to Mullins and Craig because they’re gay. That’s an obvious instance of discrimination.
Despite what some people in the Religious Right seem to think, the high court didn’t rule that there is an unfettered right to discriminate based on religious beliefs. In fact, the court made it clear in its ruling that LGBTQ people may not be subjected to “indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market” and they “cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.”
What the court said is that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had exhibited bias against the baker in this specific case. It pointed out that such government proceedings must be free of anti-religious animus.
That sounds fine on its face, but it begs a question: Was there actually bias against the baker’s beliefs in this situation? The evidence is slim and rests mainly on a statement made by one member of the commission who said, “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust. … [W]e can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me, it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to, to use their religion to hurt others.”
While the reference to the Holocaust may be hyperbolic, the gist of the commissioner’s statement is hardly controversial. Historically, religion has been used to oppress people and deny their rights.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, this was just one statement by one commissioner in a long process that involved other government bodies, such as state courts. There’s no evidence that these other institutions exhibited any form of bias against the baker. Even if we accept that notion that the commissioner’s statement was hostile to religion, it hardly indicts the entire process.
It seems the Supreme Court was looking for a way to get rid of this case without addressing a compelling question: Can the owner of a for-profit business use his or her religion to deny goods or services to another person?
The court may have dodged the issue this time with what it thinks is a compromise, but this question will be back. Several similar cases are in the pipeline.
We hope for a more thoughtful analysis from the court next time.