Employment Discrimination Blog

Friday, July 6, 2018

Examining the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision

What does the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop mean for business owners?

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling in the highly anticipated case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This case, which involved a bakery owner who declined to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, was hoped to decide vital issues concerning the intersection of religion and gay rights. Unfortunately, the court largely sidestepped the issue by limiting its holding to the facts of the case. Nonetheless, the ruling is important and will be analyzed for some time to come. Our Georgia civil rights lawyers explore the facts of the case and the holding below.

Facts of the Case

A same-sex couple in Colorado went to a bakery to purchase their wedding cake. The bakery owner refused to make the cake because same-sex marriage is not accepted in his religion. The couple then filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, claiming that the bakery’s refusal to make the cake violates the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which holds that it is unlawful for any person engaged in offering services to the public to refuse equal enjoyment of goods due to sexual orientation, among other things. To which the bakery owner countered that he was exercising his rights to freedom of speech and religion.

The Commission ruled in favor of the couple, finding the bakery in violation of state law. When the bakery appealed the ruling, it was affirmed. Following the Colorado Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the matter, the bakery owner appealed to the Supreme Court, who took the case.

The Decision

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Colorado Court of Appeals and found that the Commission violated the bakery owner’s rights of free speech and free exercise of religion. In a 7-2 verdict, the Court acknowledged the difficult nature of the case and the potentially conflicting rights of gay persons against discrimination and the freedoms of the First Amendment.

Turning to the facts of the case, the Court found that baking a cake is a creative undertaking that implicates freedom of expression, unlike selling a common good. Accordingly, the Commission was required to weigh the cake shop owner’s First Amendment rights against those of the same-sex couple. The Court, in reviewing the record, found that the Commission took a hostile attitude towards the cake shop owner’s religion and failed to fairly consider his rights. As such, the matter must be returned to the Commission. Given the limited nature of the holding, employers need not revise their policies or practices, but should always remain abreast of local and federal laws.

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