Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

Supreme Court Avoids Choosing Between Religion and Anti-Discrimination in Commerce

Posted by Jon Elliott on Tue, Jun 12, 2018

Wedding cakeOn June 4 the United States Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission … and avoided deciding the underlying dispute. The case arose after a baker refused to make one of his special artistic wedding cakes for a gay couple, because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The baker, Jack Phillips, had been fined by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the Commission) for violating that state’s prohibitions against discrimination, setting up the chance for the Supreme Court to decide whether First Amendment religious freedoms include the right to refuse service to people protected against discrimination.

Instead of deciding that question, however, seven members of the Court decided that the Commission had demonstrated bias in considering Phillips’ prosecution for violating the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, violating Phillips’ Constitutional rights. Accordingly, they overturned state order penalizing him, and declined to reach the merits of the dispute.

The nine justices did produce a majority opinion, three concurring opinions, and a dissent – all of which talked around the tensions between the First Amendment and legal protection against discrimination, applying the facts in somewhat different ways to reach different conclusions about how disputes like this might be decided. Accordingly, the decision does provide some guidance about religious freedoms in commercial settings, which we can ponder while we await a future case that may decide the merits.

What Happened Between the Baker and His Would-Be Customers?

Jack Phillips runs a bakery, the Masterpiece Cakeshop. He considers himself an artist, who seeks to honor God and Jesus Christ through his work, including uniquely designed and executed wedding cakes. Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins sought to hire him to prepare a cake for their wedding reception (Colorado did not yet allow same-sex marriage, but they planned to marry in Massachusetts and return home to celebrate with family and friends). He refused to perform this special service for them because of his religious principles, but he did offer to make and sell other cakes or cookies that did not overtly implicate marriage.

The couple complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, claiming that Phillips’ refusal violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act prohibition against discrimination (including on the basis of sexual orientation) in places of “public accommodation.” This prohibition applies to service businesses such as bakeries.

What Did the Colorado Authorities Do With This Dispute?

After investigation, the Commission referred the case to an administrative law judge (ALJ) for hearing. The ALJ rejected Phillips’ argument that he’d violated no law since Colorado didn’t recognize same sex marriages, finding that his refusal to serve was based on sexual orientation discrimination. The ALJ also rejected his First Amendment arguments that his artistry constitutes protected Free Speech, and that the Free Exercise clause protects him against being forced to perform a service that violates his religious principles. Instead, the ALJ cited precedent for the proposition that the Anti-Discrimination Act is a “valid and neutral law of general applicability”, administration of which does not violate either aspect of the First Amendment.

Phillips appealed to the full Commission, which held a public hearing. At the hearing, one commissioner publicly disparaged Phillips’ arguments. First, that commissioner opined that religious beliefs cannot legitimately apply in commercial situations. More pointedly, that commissioner pointed out that religious arguments had been used to justify slavery and the Holocaust, and found such arguments to be “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use … to hurt others.” None of the other commissioners responded to these arguments, but the Commission ultimately found that Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop had violated state law.

Phillips appealed, renewing his First Amendment arguments and arguing that hostility to his beliefs had tainted the Commission’s actions. He also pointed out that the Commission had recently found no discrimination in three cases against bakeries that refused to make cakes with lettering opposing same sex marriage, accepting those other bakers’ arguments that they refused because they found the requested message offensive. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s decision against Phillips, accepting the legal arguments that the Anti-Discrimination Law is neutral and withstands individual First Amendment claims, and disposing of the disparate enforcement claims in a footnote.

What Has the US Supreme Court Decided?

Justice Kennedy, who is frequently the swing vote between four conservative justices and four progressive justices, wrote the majority opinion. He emphasized tensions between First Amendment rights and growing anti-discrimination protections (which are, after all, grounded in Constitutional Equal Protection clauses), and recounted growing political and social trends that are rebalancing these rights. However, Justice Kennedy also wrote that the Court has consistently protected members of the public and their First Amendment religious rights against biased administrative agencies and their decisions, and chose to do so in this case by overturning the Colorado Human Rights Commission decision that Phillips had violated state law, and the intervening state court decision.

Six justices signed onto Justice Kennedy’s opinion. Two (justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor) dissented, finding that Phillips’ refusal to make one of his generally-available cakes for the gay couple violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. Accordingly, I’m seeing news analyses that a 7-2 majority has upheld religious rights for commercial businesses – or at least for self-employed service providers.

However, these interpretations ignore the detailed arguments and counter-arguments within the three concurring opinions and the dissent. In those opinions, eight of the nine justices offered different perspectives, which could have led to different outcomes that directly addressed the underlying questions about the applicability of First Amendment rights to commercial transactions. These differences include the possible scope of a First Amendment right in these situations – would a Masterpiece Cakeshop cake imply agreement with same-sex marriage, or a willingness to comply with state law (even begrudgingly), or just a commercial decision to make and sell a cake? Should services that merely require specialized skills (e.g., baking), receive different/lower protections than those that required special skills (e.g., baking artistry)? Does sale of a good or service imply that the provider endorses the customer’s circumstances?

What’s Next?

This case is over, but other cases are working their way through state and federal courts. Eventually, a case that’s not tainted by administrative bias will reach the Supreme Court, and when it does the nine justices then on the bench will have to decide it. Among the nine justices now on the Court, my reading is that four would have found for the baker, four would have found for the state. Only Justice Kennedy, who has recently denied (politically-motivated?) rumors that he may be considering retirement, has kept the icing on his views.

Self-Assessment Checklist

Does the organization ever decline to provide generally-available goods or services because of its owner(s)’ religious or ethical views?

If so, how is that business policy communicated to customers and/or the general market?

Where Can I Go For More Information?
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission decision (on Supreme Court website) 

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 13 existing products, including Environmental Compliance: A Simplified National Guide and The Complete Guide to Environmental Law.

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:


photo credit: Salicia Close up of the bottom layers of my daughter's Wedding Cake via photopin (license)

Tags: Business & Legal