SCOTUS rules in Masterpiece: What does it mean?

Anti-gay baker wins, but ruling also upholds non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling in the much-talked-about Masterpiece Cakeshop case today. Reactions from civil rights groups and anti-LGBTQ conservatives were swift and varied.

The 7-2 ruling narrowly sided with Denver, Colo., baker Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. In its opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled that Colorado had infringed on Phillips’ rights to free exercise of religion.

The case’s origins date back to 2012, when Phillips declined to create a custom wedding cake for a gay couple. The couple said they felt humiliated, and took their case to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Colorado state law prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Phillips has argued that government should not be forced to compel him to use his artistic talents to craft a message with which he personally disagrees.

The state’s Civil Rights Commission, the court said, had followed a flawed process and showed hostility toward Phillips’ religious beliefs.

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“The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here,” Kennedy wrote. “The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”

The decision, however, was also careful to assert that LGBTQ people deserve protections against discrimination in an open market. Kennedy also stressed that this ruling should not necessarily be used to decide all similar cases in the future.

“The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Kennedy wrote, “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 an open market.”

What does it mean?

Both sides in the debate were quick to react on Monday. Anti-LGBTQ conservatives hailed the decision, saying that the Supreme Court had upheld “religious freedom” — a term conservatives often use when they describe outright anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

And while some LGBTQ people, understandably so, might see this case as a possible open-door to discrimination, most LGBTQ organizations saw more nuance in the ruling.

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The Asheville, N.C.-based Campaign for Southern Equality said Monday’s opinion was a “narrow response” to “a single Colorado business.”

“The Court did not rule that there is a right to discriminate,” the Campaign said in a statement. “This ruling does not apply to businesses in other states and does not invalidate non-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ people.”

The ruling, the Campaign said, does not address “the fundamental First Amendment question of whether LGBTQ people should be discriminated against in public accommodations.” The group said they are “confident” that future court rulings will find such protection exists.

The ACLU, which represented the gay couple at the center of the case, said the opinion was a “non-loss,” saying the ruling “did not accept arguments that would have turned back the clock on equality.”

Instead, the ACLU said, the ruling in this case was “based on concerns specific to the facts” surrounding Phillips and his business.

“The court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeship decision based on concerns unique to the case but reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said in a statement.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.