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The Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, briefly explained

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If you need to know anything about the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the baker who refused to make a same-sex wedding cake, it’s this: It could have been much worse.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who handed down the 7-2 ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, was explicit about this. As he wrote in the decision’s most important paragraph:

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 an open market.

What this means, in short, is that the Supreme Court has punted on the broader issues involved, narrowing its ruling to the specific circumstances of this individual case, and that what it said should not be interpreted as giving other businesses carte blanche to do what Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, did.

The basic facts of the case

Let’s back up a bit. Prior to the ruling, LGBTQ advocates were seriously worried about the potential repercussions of this case — what it meant not just for Masterpiece Cakeshop’s practices but for other businesses like it.

Phillips said that he’s allowed to cite his sincerely held religious beliefs to discriminate against same-sex couples looking for a wedding cake because he genuinely opposes same-sex marriage. He pointed to the First Amendment as his shield.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission and lower courts ruled against Phillips, finding that he had illegally discriminated when he refused to make a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple. Phillips appealed those lower rulings to the Supreme Court.

LGBTQ advocates worried that if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phillips, it could give businesses a “license to discriminate” — because, in effect, any business could cite its religious beliefs to discriminate against LGBTQ people. That would open a hole in laws that ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace, housing, public accommodations (which include businesses open to the public, like Phillips’s), and schools.

If that proved true, it’d be a huge blow to LGBTQ advocates. It’s already the case that most states and the federal government do not explicitly ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination in these settings. So if the Supreme Court weakened the existing laws further, it’d make a national landscape that’s already unfriendly to LGBTQ people even worse.

The Supreme Court’s narrow ruling

The Supreme Court, however, by and large avoided these issues. Instead of looking at the broader debate, the Court focused on the facts of how Masterpiece Cakeshop was treated by the Colorado government and particularly by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

For example, the Court pointed out:

As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. No commissioners objected to the comments.

In the Court’s view, this was open hostility to Phillips’s religious beliefs — and that kind of hostility from a government body violates Phillips’s constitutional rights.

That’s not to say, however, that a government agency couldn’t balance out its interests in banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination with respect for individuals’ religious beliefs. On the contrary, the Court noted that state governments’ interests here “could have been weighed against Phillips’ sincere religious objections in a way consistent with the requisite religious neutrality that must be strictly observed.”

What went wrong here, then, is the process. It’s not that Phillips should, in theory, be allowed to cite his religion to freely discriminate. It’s that the way the Colorado Civil Rights Commission concluded that Phillips had illegally discriminated was very poorly handled.

That’s not to say that this is a total victory for LGBTQ advocates. They, after all, wanted Phillips to lose. And the fact he didn’t lose may signal that businesses like Phillips’s that want to discriminate can still win in courtrooms.

Still, this ruling is narrow, even if it was decided on a 7-2 margin: It doesn’t set a precedent that broadly allows anti-LGBTQ discrimination; it only hands Phillips a victory narrowed to his business. And that’s far from what many on Phillips’s side hoped for.

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