In 2012, David Mullins and Charlie Craig visited a Colorado bakery to order a custom cake for their upcoming wedding reception. The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to design a wedding cake for the same-sex wedding reception, saying he would not use his artistic talents to design a cake that conveyed a message supportive of same-sex marriage, which contradicts his personal religious views. The not-so-happy couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging that in refusing to design, bake, and sell them a cake for their celebration, the bakery violated a Colorado state law barring sexual orientation discrimination.
After the couple prevailed before the Commission and in the lower courts, on June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in a 7-2 decision, with Justice Kennedy authoring the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111. The Court’s decision was narrow, and turned on what it found to be anti-religious animus on the part of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which included “inappropriate and dismissive comments” about the bakery owner’s purportedly sincerely held religious beliefs in its initial decision in favor of the couple. Importantly, the ruling did not hold that the Colorado public accommodations law does not protect LGBT customers; rather, the Supreme Court held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission approached the case with “a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated [the bakery owner’s] objection” to custom designing a wedding cake for the would-be patrons, and therefore reversed the lower court’s decision that affirmed what it viewed to be an initial determination tainted by anti-religion bias.
Contrary to many media reports, the decision did not open the door to discrimination against the LGBT community under the guise of exercising one’s First Amendment rights, nor did it invalidate public accommodation laws that protect, among other characteristics, sexual orientation. In fact, Justice Kennedy noted in his opinion that complicated disputes such as these, which pit religious values against the rights of the LGBT community “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.”
Although this particular dispute was remanded for further proceedings, state statutes such as the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which applies not only to public accommodations but also to Colorado employers, remain in effect. Employers are encouraged to review state and local laws where they operate to ensure compliance with protections designed for LGBT employees and business patrons, and should not presume that this narrow decision invalidates such protections.