SCOTUS Issues Narrow Decision in Baker’s Favor in “Gay Wedding Cake” Case

In a 7-2 decision issued today, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (U.S. No. 16-111 June 4, 2018) (J. Kennedy), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to create a cake for a gay couple’s wedding because of his claimed religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

Importantly, the Court did not¬†hold that the First Amendment authorizes discrimination against gay persons (or anyone, for that matter). Rather, its narrow holding is confined to the facts of the case.[1]As used in this context, “narrow” does not refer to the vote (7-2) tally, but rather to the extent to which its holding may be applied to different factual circumstances. That, of course, remains to be seen. As explained by Justice¬†Kennedy:[2]Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch joined. Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Breyer joined. Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Sotomayor joined.

Whatever the confluence of speech and free exercise principles might be in some cases, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality. The reason and motive for the baker’s refusal were based on his sincere religious beliefs and convictions. The Court’s precedents make clear that the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws. Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach. That requirement, however, was not met here. When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.

*4 Given all these considerations, it is proper to hold that whatever the outcome of some future controversy involving facts similar to these, the Commission’s actions here violated the Free Exercise Clause; and its order must be set aside.

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1. As used in this context, “narrow” does not refer to the vote (7-2) tally, but rather to the extent to which its holding may be applied to different factual circumstances. That, of course, remains to be seen.
2. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch joined. Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Breyer joined. Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Sotomayor joined.