Supreme Court scolds Commission for hostility toward religion

Posted at 6:14 PM, Jun 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-04 20:14:45-04

In a 7-2 decision, the United States Supreme Court Monday ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who declined to make a custom wedding a cake for a gay couple back in 2012. The couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, were married in Massachusetts but held a celebration with friends and relatives in Colorado when they returned. At the time, gay weddings were not legally permitted in Colorado. 

They filed a complaint with Colorado Civil Rights Division against Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, claiming discrimination. The high court scolded the Commission for its hostility towards Phillips and his faith during those proceedings.

The ruling overturns previous lower court decisions against Phillips, but it specifically focused on his treatment by the State of Colorado, and not the question of whether businesses can refuse gay customers.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy called out comments by one Civil Rights Commissioner in particular as disparaging against Phillips religious beliefs. The commissioner had said that freedom of religion was used to justify slavery and the Holocaust.

"This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation," Kennedy wrote.

He concluded that the outcome of cases like these must "await further elaboration in the courts."

"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," he wrote.

Attorneys from both of parties told reporters the reason Phillips won is that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission didn’t give him a fair hearing.

"This process was openly hostile to Jack because of his religious viewpoint and that in and of itself was enough to render it unconstitutional under the free exercise clause," said Kristen Waggoner of the civil rights group Alliance Defending Freedom.

James Esseks, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT & HIV Project, said the ruling shouldn’t be interpreted more broadly. He went as far as to say that the bakery won the battle, but lost the war.

"This decision, and the concerns that the court had about the Civil Rights Commission, and comments by some of the commissioners, is very unlikely to be repeated in any other circumstance," Esseks said.

Still, the ruling was a disappointment for Mullins and Craig. They told reporters that they won’t give up their fight.

"We brought this case because no one should have to face the shame, embarrassment, and humiliation of being told that we don’t serve your kind here that we faced and we will continue fighting until no one does," Mullins said.

Bruce Hausknecht, a Judicial Analyst with Focus on the Family, said the ruling is a success for Phillips and for religious freedom.

"This is a real victory for Jack who has been fighting the courts for several years and almost went out of business," Hausknecht said. "He took quite a hit when he gave up making wedding cakes."

Governor John Hickenlooper, who appoints Civil Rights Commissioners, acknowledged this rebuff by the high court. He said in a statement that he was disappointed by the decision but that he "takes seriously the court’s admonition that the state must apply its laws in a way that is neutral toward religion."

State lawmakers passed a bill last month to re-authorize Civil Rights Commission with some reforms. Under the new law, only four of board’s seven commissioners can be affiliated with the same political party. Additionally, state auditors will now review the board’s work once every four years.