The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed “hostility” toward a local baker when it decided he had discriminated against gay couple by refusing to bake a cake for their wedding in 2012.
The ruling avoided a larger question the case presented, which is whether Jack Phillips, the baker in question, had a First Amendment right to refuse his services to David Mullins and his fiance Charlie Craig. The Supreme Court’s ultimate 7-2 ruling was decidedly narrow — it held that “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views,” but also reinforced that business owners cannot otherwise deny equal access to goods and services.
The Court stated in its ruling that it may face this constitutional question in the future, implying that Monday’s decision was not the final say in the matter — but if the Court had ruled differently, it could have been a needed legal victory for LGBTQ+ people in the United States.
One of the main arguments presented in the case was that Phillips’ refusal to sell Mullins and Craig a cake was protected by his religious rights. But the cake the couple requested would not actually have been infringing upon Phillips’ rights — it was to be an ordinary confection, free of any sayings or images. As Justice Elena Kagan noted in her separate concurring opinion, Philips was refusing to sell a cake that was “suitable for use at same-sex and opposite-sex weddings.”
Instead, Phillips’ issue was with the two men engaged to be married. He denied them a specific type of cake he would have willingly made for heterosexual couples, determining that creating the product would be offensive to his religion based on the identity of those requesting it.
The ruling comes at a time when LGBTQ+ individuals still face discrimination in the public and private sectors. Several states still do not expressly bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Some, such as Virginia and Michigan, have laws permitting private foster care and adoption agencies to discriminate against children and potential parents based on the providers’ moral or religious objections. Mental health professionals in Tennessee can legally turn away clients who violate their “principles.”
The ruling may also galvanize more discriminatory cases and laws. Despite the Court’s recognition that religious exemptions from anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination are inconsistent with equality for LGBTQ+ people, other courts may use the case as a benchmark in other arguments about civil rights. And several are being argued right now — a Washington state parent is suing her employer for refusing to provide insurance coverage for her transgender son, and a North Carolina substitute teacher is suing a Catholic school for firing him after he married his partner.
The Supreme Court’s ruling did not deny that LGBTQ+ individuals should be afforded the same dignity in society as anyone else. But it still supported the notion that business owners can discriminate and select who they can make their services available to — a decision that could have costly consequences for the future of American civil liberties.