Supreme Court Rules Business Owner Did Not Discriminate in Gay Rights Case

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

June 6, 2018

A Colorado bakery owner who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple based on his religious beliefs should not have been found to have violated the state's anti-discrimination law, the Supreme Court held. In a 7-2 ruling, the justices found that a Colorado agency was neither tolerant nor respectful of the baker's sincere religious beliefs, and violated his First Amendment free exercise of religion rights.

Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said gay persons should not be subject to indignities when they seek goods and services on the open market. But Justice Kennedy noted that since Colorado did not recognize same-sex marriage at the time the baker denied service (2012), he may not have been unreasonable in refusing to create a cake that violated his sincerely held religious convictions.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the Constitution requires all states to license same-sex marriages and to recognize such marriages when they were lawfully performed out of state. Many employers in that case of Oberbefell v. Hodges, including American Express, Coca-Cola and Google, had urged the Court to reach such a holding, and argued that businesses benefit from diversity and inclusion.

In the present case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, business owner Jack Phillips said his "main goal in life is to be obedient to Jesus Christ," and that God's intention of marriage should be the union of one man and one woman. In weighing the case, two members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission made comments suggesting they were dismissive of Phillips' beliefs.

But the Supreme Court noted that Colorado law protects against discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation. And, it found that the commissioners' statements cast doubt on their fairness and impartiality in deciding the case by treating the business owner's conscience-based objections as illegitimate.

The Commission had ruled that Phillips had discriminated against the same-sex couple based on their sexual orientation. However, the Supreme Court concluded that the Commission's hostility to Phillips' beliefs violated the religious neutrality that the First Amendment requires.

Justice Kennedy also pointed out that the Commission had acted inconsistently, noting that it had previously sided with bakers who refused to create cakes with decorations that demeaned gay marriages. Nonetheless, the Court did reaffirm protections for the gay and lesbian community in its ruling and suggested that its holding was limited to the treatment of Phillips in this particular case. The Court's narrow ruling in the business owner's favor suggests that many questions still remain unanswered.

The nation's highest court has notably yet to rule on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees based on their sexual orientation, despite a clear split in the federal appellate courts.

The 2nd and 7th Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that Title VII protections extend to gay employees. But the 11th Circuit reached the opposite result, finding that Title VII does not ban sexual orientation discrimination. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in that case earlier this term, but the issue may eventually resurface.