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U.S. Supreme Court Reinforces the Importance of Religious Neutrality under the First Amendment

Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2018 6:26 am

On June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision, that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated its First Amendment duty to apply the State’s public accommodations law in a manner that is neutral toward religion. 

In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Commission, the owner of a bakery declined to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, saying he did not “create” wedding cakes for same sex weddings because it went against his religious beliefs.  He felt that his creation of the wedding cake would amount to participation in a ceremony that he believed went against the Bible.  The baker, however, offered to make other baked goods for the couple, such as birthday cakes and cookies. 

The couple sued the baker under Colorado’s state law that prohibited discrimination because of sexual orientation in public accommodations.  The Commission ruled against the baker, rejecting his arguments that his refusal to create a wedding cake for the couple violated his First Amendment rights (1) to free speech and (2) free exercise of religion.

The Supreme Court, however, determined that in adjudicating the case, Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated its First Amendment duty to apply laws in a manner that is neutral to religion.  The Commission, the Court ruled, treated the baker with clear and impermissible hostility toward his sincere religious beliefs.  For instance, in public hearings, the Commissioners disparaged the baker’s religious beliefs, describing the freedom of religion as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.”  The Court further noted that the Commission treated the baker in this case differently from other bakers who previously declined to create cakes with messages that disapproved of same-sex marriage.

The Court’s ruling sends a clear message to government entities to exercise religious neutrality when weighing sincere religious beliefs against other government interests, such as ensuring same-sex couples have equal access to goods and services.  The Court’s decision, however, did not authorize places of public accommodations to discrimination in violation of state or federal law because of the religious beliefs of an owner or manager.  Rather, it recognized that its decision had to be “sufficiently constrained” or it may lead to a “serious stigma on gay persons” if businesses who object to same-sex marriage to deny goods and services that are sold for same-sex marriages.

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