In the Masterpiece Cakeshop lawsuit that reignited religious liberty and gay rights debates throughout the nation, a Monday, June 4, decision from U.S. Supreme Court justices leaves the issue far from settled.
Justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that Denver cakeshop owner Jack Phillips had been the victim of anti-religious bias from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which heard the 2012 complaint filed by Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, the same-sex couple at the heart of the case.
Craig and Mullins complained to the commission after Phillips refused to bake a cake for their wedding. The commission sided with the couple and Phillips began his appeal, setting off the nation’s top legal battle between religious liberty and gay rights of the past decade.
Monday’s decision wasn’t the black-and-white result that some in the debate hoped for — and it’s much less sweeping than the court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015, which legalized gay marriage nationwide.
Instead, justices decided only that Phillips’ constitutional rights were violated by the Colorado commission because of anti-religious comments made by its members.
But in avoiding the foundation of the debate, Supreme Court justices have given succor to both sides of the debate.
Conservatives concerned that religious liberty is being eroded in the country saw justices affirm clear protections for First Amendment religious protections. Meanwhile, gay rights activists noted that the decision also keeps in place state-level protections for certain classes of people.
“The court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision based on concerns unique to the case but reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Many Georgia conservatives were celebrating the decision on Monday. Gubernatorial candidates for state office were quick to stake out positions on the decision because of Georgia’s ongoing religious liberty legislation debate.
In an announcement after the decision was released, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said the “Supreme Court confirmed what we already knew: The Constitution protects religious exercise and expression. There’s no clause that says ‘unless the left deems it offensive.’”
Cagle is running to be Georgia’s next governor and is facing Secretary of State Brian Kemp in the July 24 runoff. Kemp said on Twitter on Monday that he applauded the Supreme Court decision.
“As governor, I’ll stand up to the radical left and politically correct,” Kemp said. “We will never apologize for protecting religious liberty and living out our faith.”
On the left, Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams said Georgia would line up behind gay rights.
“Georgia families and the business community have made clear again and again that discrimination under the guise of religious freedom has no place in our state,” Abrams said in a Monday announcement. “Under my leadership, every Georgian will know they can live and work in a state that will treat them with dignity, respect, and allow them to prosper, no matter who they are.”
A debate reignited
Central to Monday’s decision was deep criticism of the hostility Colorado commission showed to Phillips’ religion while it heard the complaint.
Justice Anthony Kennedy had strong words about Phillips’ treatment.
“To describe a man’s faith as ‘one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use’ is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical — something insubstantial and even insincere,” Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion published Monday. “This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s antidiscrimination law — a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.”
Kennedy’s position was surprising to some, given that he was the same justice whose opinion was the linchpin of the Obergefell decision in 2015.
Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the conservative justices in the outcome. Kagan wrote separately to emphasize the limited ruling.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. “There is much in the court’s opinion with which I agree,” Ginsburg wrote of Kennedy’s repeated references to protecting the rights of gay people. “I strongly disagree, however, with the court’s conclusion that Craig and Mullins should lose this case.”
The decision heartened conservatives in the state who have been lobbying for religious liberty legislation.
Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has lobbied for years for a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would align state and federal law (former President Bill Clinton signed a federal RFRA in 1993).
His proposal is more limited than subsequent bills introduced after the Obergefell decision, which aim to more broadly affirm constitutional protections for religious Georgians.
McKoon told The Times he was not surprised by the decision given the Colorado commission’s opinions about Phillips’ faith. But even though the court ruled in the baker’s favor, it sidestepped the underlying debate about religious liberty and its collision with gay rights.
And that’s a good thing for states, according to the devout Catholic from West Georgia.
“These sort of issues should have been hashed out by legislators because then compromises can be made and the different interests can be balanced and various conflicts can be anticipated and recognized,” McKoon said.
When the Supreme Court “creates new law out of whole cloth,” said McKoon, it sets up political struggles that last for generations. He noted the court’s decision on abortion in Roe v. Wade in the 1970s, which created an abortion fight that is still raging in the nation.
He cautioned people on both sides of the debate to not overestimate the significance of Monday’s ruling or any other — the United States is up for a long, long fight.
“Anyone who thinks that this decision decides everything or the next decision is going to decide everything or the next bill is going to decide everything, when it comes to that larger question of free exercise (of religion) colliding with LGBT legal protections is living in a fantasy world,” McKoon said. “We’re going to be living with that probably long after I’m dead and gone — they’ll still be thrashing out the various conflicts between those two legal priorities.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.