What Wedding Vendors Need to Know in the Wake of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
Author: Haley Paul
This week, news outlets were abuzz with reactions to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (full Supreme Court opinion here). However, much misunderstanding abounds following the release of the Supreme Court’s opinion. With headlines like “Masterpiece Cakeshop Victory” and “At Masterpiece Cakeshop, cheers and smiles for Jack Phillips after Supreme Court ruling,” the casual observer might assume that the Supreme Court ruled that bakers—and other wedding vendors—may refuse to provide goods and services in connection with same-sex weddings on First Amendment grounds. However, the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling is far narrower, and if you are in the wedding industry, you should continue to tread carefully.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop, a baker refused to make a cake for a gay couple’s upcoming wedding on religious grounds, but told the couple that he would make their “birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell [them] cookies and brownies,” but he did not “make cakes for same-sex weddings.” The couple filed a discrimination complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division (the “Division”). The Division then referred the matter to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, (the “Commission”) who in turn initiated a formal hearing before a state Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ heard evidence on the matter and issued a decision in the couple’s favor, and the baker appealed to the Commission, who affirmed the ALJ’s decision. The baker appealed again to the Colorado Court of Appeals, and finally, to the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ultimately held that the Commission’s actions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. However, the Court’s decision centered around the Court’s determination that the Commission failed to give the baker “neutral and respectful consideration of his claims” and that the Commission’s treatment of his case had some “elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.” In other words, the Commission wrongfully showed an anti-religious bias in entering its decision against the baker. (In particular, one of the commissioners who heard the baker’s case made several disparaging comments on the record concerning the baker’s beliefs.) According to the Court, these “official expressions of hostility to religion” were inconsistent with the Free Exercise Clause and required that the Commission’s order be set aside. Importantly, the Court skirted several other important issues concerning whether the baking of a wedding cake is an expression of “free speech” or “free exercise of religion.”
The Court’s holding, therefore, does not protect wedding vendors from refusing to provide their goods and services to gay couples on religious grounds. In fact, the court specifically noted that, “while…religious and philosophical objections are protected, it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law (emphasis added).” Furthermore, the court explained that, while “members of the clergy who object to gay marriage on moral and religious grounds” are exempt from being compelled to perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples as an exercise of religion, that exception must be confined in order to prevent the public at large from refusing to provide goods and services for gay persons, which would result in a “community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations.” Thus, the Court specifically left open the possibility that wedding vendors may be liable in the future for refusing goods and services in connection with gay weddings.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether the Supreme Court will extend or restrict its Masterpiece Cakeshop holding (the Court is already considering the case of Arlene Flowers v. Washington—with both sides filing supplemental briefs following the Masterpiece Cake decision), but for the time being, wedding vendors should assume that refusing goods or services to gay individuals on religious grounds will invite legal battles to an uncertain end.