Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission Explained

by Kathryn Freeman on June 5, 2018 in CLC

What Does It Mean:

Monday, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission in a 7-2 decision in favor of Masterpiece and its owner, Jack Phillips. While Phillips asked the Supreme Court to consider his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, the Court actually only addressed his free exercise claim. The Court  found that his free exercise rights had been violated because the government in Colorado, as represented by its Civil Rights Commission, inappropriately judged his religious beliefs.

According to earlier Supreme Court precedent, the government is not allowed to make judgments on the validity of one’s religious beliefs; it can only judge whether sincerely held religious beliefs might sometimes be outweighed by the public interest. This neutral consideration was not evident in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

The Court left hanging the larger question about future religious liberty claims related to business owners by stating “the outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in the open market.”

As for Texas, this ruling is a reminder to lawmakers and judges that open hostility to religious persons and beliefs violates the First Amendment requirement of respect and neutrality. The specific pattern that arose in Masterpiece Cakeshop is unlikely to occur in Texas for two reasons:

1) because Texas non-discrimination laws do not apply to sexual orientation, although some cities have passed non-discrimination ordinances that do include sexual orientation. In all cases, non-discrimination laws are inapplicable to churches, and

2) in 1999, a diverse group of religious and non-religious leaders, including the CLC’s director at the time, Phil Strickland, helped pass the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). The Texas RFRA lays out by statute how courts are to consider religious liberty claims. It prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion unless the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and the government has employed the least restrictive means possible in furthering that interest. RFRA does not guarantee the rights of a religious person will triumph in every circumstance, but it does establish a framework for the respectful and neutral consideration of a person’s religious rights versus government interests.

Monday’s court ruling is an important reminder that government cannot be openly hostile toward religion or religious persons who seek to bring their religious convictions to the public square. While the nature of living in a pluralistic society will sometimes include debates and disagreements over competing declarations of rights, as Christians we should commit ourselves to kindness, love for our neighbors, and respectful debate as we bring our faith with us in all that we do.


The undisputed facts of the case are that a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, entered Masterpiece Cake Shop, owned by Jack Phillips, in 2012. Craig and Mullins wanted Phillips to make a wedding cake for a party celebrating their wedding in Massachusetts (same-sex marriage was not legal at the time in Colorado). Phillips, a devout Christian, whose ”main goal in life is to be obedient to” Jesus Christ and his teachings, refused to create a wedding cake for the same-sex wedding celebration. He offered to make the couple any other type of cake but refused to make a wedding cake on the grounds of his religious conviction. In court documents, Phillips said same-sex marriage “directly goes against the teachings of the Bible” and to make such a cake would be a personal endorsement of the ceremony and the marriage.

Craig and Mullins filed a discrimination complaint against Masterpiece Cakeshop and Phillips under Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), which states:

“It is a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from, or deny to an individual or a group, because of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry, the full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation.”

Public accommodation is usually interpreted to mean any business doing sales to the public. Craig and Mullins claimed they had been denied “full and equal” service because of their sexual orientation. The Colorado Civil Rights Division investigated the complaint and found sufficient evidence that Phillips turned away business from same-sex couples seeking wedding cakes. The case was then turned over to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In response to the complaint, Phillips raised two constitutional objections: 1) that applying the CADA to this case would require him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding, which violates his First Amendment right to free speech by compelling him to use his artistic talents to express a message, and 2) that applying the CADA in this situation would violate his right to free exercise of religion because creating cakes for same-sex weddings was against his sincerely held religious beliefs.

The case was heard by an administrative law judge who ruled in favor of Craig and Mullins. The commission affirmed the judge's opinion and ordered  Phillips to “cease and desist from discriminating against. ... same-sex couples by refusing to sell them wedding cakes.” Mr. Phillips appealed this decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the Commission by relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent in Employment Div. Dept. of Human Resource of Ore. v Smith, that the Free Exercise Clause “does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the grounds that following the  law would interfere with religious practice of belief.” This just means a law that applies to everyone does not violate the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion even if the law impedes some religious practice. In the Smith case, the issue related to the ability to smoke peyote for indigenous religious practices.

Phillips then appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued its opinion Monday, June 4.

The Decision:

The Supreme Court issued a 7-2 decision in favor of Phillips. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the Commission failed to consider Phillips free exercise claim in a neutral and respectful manner. The majority opinion cited numerous quotes from the Commission that demonstrated an open hostility to Phillips and his religious liberty claims by implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community, describing Phillips’ faith as despicable and also characterizing it as insubstantial and insincere. One commissioner went so far as to describe Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.

Justice Kennedy contrasted Phillips’ treatment by the Commission with that of three bakers who had refused to bake cakes expressing religious opposition to same-sex marriage. In those cases the Commission found no violation of the CADA because the bakers were willing to serve cakes carrying other religious themes. This difference in treatment signaled an official disapproval of Phillips’ religious beliefs. The Supreme Court has made clear in other cases that the government cannot act in a manner that presupposes or passes judgment upon the legitimacy of religious beliefs and practices. Justice Kennedy stated that the Constitution bars even subtle departures from neutrality when it comes to religion. Accordingly, “the Constitution commits government to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion that proposals for state intervention stem from animosity to religion or distrust of its practices, all officials must pause and remember their own high duty to the Constitution and the rights it secures.”

The court declined to make a sweeping ruling in the ongoing question of the appropriate balance between religious objections to gay marriage and the marriage rights extended to gay couples through Obergefell.  Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion, stated that “gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.” He acknowledged that states may rightly act to protect their exercise of the civil rights. He also pointeds to language in Obergefell that “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given protection as they seek to teach the principles... that are central to their lives and faith.” He also acknowledges that, as a general rule, business owners cannot use religious objections to deny others equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable law.  According to the majority, the problem in this case was that the Commission failed to consider Mr. Phillips claim neutrally and respectfully.

In conclusion, the Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee of neutrality toward religion in the application of laws. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling in this case and found in favor of Phillips.

The Supreme Court has affirmed the rights of religious persons to have their beliefs treated with respect by the government even where the government might disagree. As people of faith, we should continue to serve our neighbors with kindness and respect, even when they might not understand our religious convictions.

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Read more articles in: CLC, Christian Life Commission, Public Policy