Monday, June 4, 2018
The Supreme Court just released its decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, which dealt with a cake shop owner's claim that his religious freedom should allow him to refuse customers who wanted a cake for a same-sex wedding. The Supreme Court reversed a state commission's decision against the shop owner, holding that the decision violated his right to free expression. But the decision is narrower than it may first appear. In particular, the Court appeared to hinge the decision on the state commission's decision in the case, which it viewed as being impermissibly hostile to religion (this may have led to the 7-2 lineup at the Court).
This was not an employment case, but there are parallels. As a result, although the Court seemed to duck the underlying issue about free expression v. antidiscrimination laws, employers will no doubt try to use Masterpiece as a defense. But its value will depend on employers' ability to couch their employment discrimination as expression because one of the unique aspects of Masterpiece was that the shop owner claimed that making cakes was artistic--that is, constitutionally protected expression. Because of that, and the Court's criticism of the state commission, most employers will not be able to make an argument like Masterpiece. There will no doubt be exceptions--maybe a religious-themed artist that hires assistants--but there are not a lot of business that involve both the level of expression needed for such a claim, as well as the level of hostility that the Court perceived. But I'm sure many employers will make the argument nonetheless . . . .