Monday, June 4, 2018
In its opinion today authored by Justice Kennedy in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court found that the cakeshop owner's First Amendment Free Exercise Clause right was infringed upon by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Recall that the Civil Rights Commission had found the cakemaker violated the state equal accommodations statute protection on the basis of sexual orientation when the cakemaker refused to be employed for a same-sex wedding cake.
Justice Kennedy's opinion decides the controversy on the basis of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993), in which the Court found that the City of Hialeah's prohibition of killing animals was aimed at the religion of Santeria, especially given the numerous exceptions in the ordinance. Here, Kennedy's opinion for the Court rejects the ALJ's conclusion that the Colorado anti-discrimination statute was a neutral law of general applicability (and thus should be evaluated under a rational basis test), finding instead that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in its adjudication of this case was not neutral but expressed hostility: "The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his [the cakemaker's] objection."
These expressions of hostility surfaced in the oral argument as we noted in a specific statement from Kennedy quoting one of the civil rights commissioners ( "freedom of religion used to justify discrimination is a despicable piece of rhetoric") which Kennedy asked counsel to disavow. This foreshadowed the opinion's quotation of the commissioner "Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.”
The opinion then stated:
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. The commissioner even went so far as to compare [cakemaker] Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of 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.
With the decision based on this, the Court admittedly sidesteps the more contentious issues and widespread issues of the case:
The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that 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.
Perhaps another limiting factor is that the Court observes that the cakebaker's refusal occurred before Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) when Colorado law did not authorize same-sex marriages. However, the Court also pointed to language in Obergefell that religious objections to same-sex marriage are protected by the First Amendment.
Yet there is also the issue of arguably inconsistent rulings from the civil rights commission.
Justice Kagan, in a brief concurring opinion joined by Justice Breyer, stressed the fault found with the Civil Rights Commission that did not give the cakemaker's religious views “neutral and respectful consideration.” She argued that any "inconsistent" rulings could be explained: the cakemakers in other cases objected to placing words on the cakes that they found offensive; in Masterpiece, the cakemaker objected to the customers who were purchasing sentiments he would provide for others.
In dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, concluded that there was not sufficient evidence of "hostility" neither in the arguably inconsistent rulings nor in the statements. As to the statements,
Whatever one may think of the statements in historical context, I see no reason why the comments of one or two Commissioners should be taken to overcome Phillips’ refusal to sell a wedding cake to Craig and Mullins. The proceedings involved several layers of independent decisionmaking, of which the Commission was but one.
First, the Division had to find probable cause that Phillips violated CADA. Second, the ALJ entertained the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. Third, the Commission heard Phillips’ appeal. Fourth, after the Commission’s ruling, the Colorado Court of Appeals considered the case de novo. What prejudice infected the determinations of the adjudicators in the case before and after the Commission?
For Ginsburg, then, this was "far removed from the only precedent upon which the Court relies, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993), where the government action that violated a principle of religious neutrality implicated a sole decisionmaking body, the city council."
Certainly, the Court's opinion rests on narrow grounds, perhaps unique to this case. But it nevertheless represents the Court chipping away at equality on the basis of sexual orientation.