Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission
Case Year: 2018
Case Ruling: 7-2
Opinion Justice: Kennedy
Court Opinion Joiner(s):
Roberts, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch
1st Concurring Opinion
1st Dissenting Opinion
2nd Concurring Opinion
2nd Dissenting Opinion
3rd Concurring Opinion
3rd Dissenting Opinion
Other Concurring Opinions:
Masterpiece Cakeshop is a Colorado bakery owned and operated by Jack Phillips, a baker and devout Christian. In 2012 he told a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, that he would not create a cake for their wedding celebration because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriages—marriages that Colorado did not then recognize—but that he would sell them other baked goods, e.g., birthday cakes.
The couple filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (Commission) pursuant to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in a “place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services … to the public.” Under CADA’s administrative review system, the Colorado Civil Rights Division first found probable cause for a violation and referred the case to the Commission. The Commission then referred the case for a formal hearing before a state Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who ruled in the couple’s favor. In so doing, the ALJ rejected Phillips’ First Amendment claims: that requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed and would violate his rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. After the Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed, Phillips took his case to the Supreme Court.
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court
The case presents difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles. The first is the authority of a State and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services. The second is the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.
The freedoms asserted here are both the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. The free speech aspect of this case is difficult, for few persons who have seen a beautiful wedding cake might have thought of its creation as an exercise of protected speech. This is an instructive example, however, of the proposition that the application of constitutional freedoms in new contexts can deepen our understanding of their meaning …
Whatever the confluence of speech and free exercise principles might be in some cases, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality. The reason and motive for the baker’s refusal were based on his sincere religious beliefs and convictions. The Court’s precedents make clear that the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws. Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach. That requirement, however, was not met here. When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires …
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 objection.
That hostility surfaced at the Commission’s formal, public hearings, as shown by the record. On May 30, 2014, the seven-member Commission convened publicly to consider Phillips’ case. At several points during its meeting, commissioners endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community. One commissioner suggested that Phillips can believe “what he wants to believe,” but cannot act on his religious beliefs “if he decides to do business in the state.” A few moments later, the commissioner restated the same position: “[I]f a businessman wants to do business in the state and he’s got an issue with the—the law’s impacting his personal belief system, he needs to look at being able to compromise.” Standing alone, these statements are susceptible of different interpretations. On the one hand, they might mean simply that a business cannot refuse to provide services based on sexual orientation, regardless of the proprietor’s personal views. On the other hand, they might be seen as inappropriate and dismissive comments showing lack of due consideration for Phillips’ free exercise rights and the dilemma he faced. In view of the comments that followed, the latter seems the more likely.
On July 25, 2014, the Commission met again. This meeting, too, was conducted in public and on the record. On this occasion another commissioner made specific reference to the previous meeting’s discussion but said far more to disparage Phillips’ beliefs. The commissioner stated:
“I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. 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.”
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 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 antidiscrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.
The record shows no objection to these comments from other commissioners. And the later state-court ruling reviewing the Commission’s decision did not mention those comments, much less express concern with their content. Nor were the comments by the commissioners disavowed in the briefs filed in this Court. For these reasons, the Court cannot avoid the conclusion that these statements cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case. Members of the Court have disagreed on the question whether statements made by lawmakers may properly be taken into account in determining whether a law intentionally discriminates on the basis of religion. See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993). In this case, however, the remarks were made in a very different context—by an adjudicatory body deciding a particular case …
Another indication of hostility is the difference in treatment between Phillips’ case and the cases of other bakers who objected to a requested cake on the basis of conscience and prevailed before the Commission.
[On] at least three other occasions the Civil Rights Division considered the refusal of bakers to create cakes [for William Jack] with images that conveyed disapproval of same-sex marriage, along with religious text. Each time, the Division found that the baker acted lawfully in refusing service. It made these determinations because, in the words of the Division, the requested cake included “wording and images [the baker] deemed derogatory;” or displayed a message the baker “deemed as discriminatory.”
The treatment of the conscience-based objections at issue in these three cases contrasts with the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ objection. The Commission ruled against Phillips in part on the theory that any message the requested wedding cake would carry would be attributed to the customer, not to the baker. Yet the Division did not address this point in any of the other cases with respect to the cakes depicting anti-gay marriage symbolism … In short, the Commission’s consideration of Phillips’ religious objection did not accord with its treatment of these other objections …
The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided. In this case the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward in the respects noted above. However later cases raising these or similar concerns are resolved in the future, for these reasons the rulings of the Commission and of the state court that enforced the Commission’s order must be invalidated.
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.
The judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals is reversed.
It is so ordered.
Justice Thomas, with whom Justice Gorsuch joins, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment
While Phillips rightly prevails on his free-exercise claim, I write separately to address his free-speech claim.
The First Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits state laws that abridge the “freedom of speech.” When interpreting this command, this Court has distinguished between regulations of speech and regulations of conduct. The latter generally do not abridge the freedom of speech, even if they impose “incidental burdens” on expression …
[But] once a court concludes that conduct is expressive, the Constitution limits the government’s authority to restrict or compel it. This rule “applies not only to expressions of value, opinion, or endorsement, but equally to statements of fact the speaker would rather avoid.” Hurley, supra, at 573. And it “makes no difference” whether the government is regulating the “creati[on], distributi[on], or consum[ption]” of the speech.
The conduct that the Colorado Court of Appeals ascribed to Phillips—creating and designing custom wedding cakes—is expressive. Phillips considers himself an artist. The logo for Masterpiece Cakeshop is an artist’s paint palate with a paintbrush and baker’s whisk. Behind the counter Phillips has a picture that depicts him as an artist painting on a canvas. Phillips takes exceptional care with each cake that he creates—sketching the design out on paper, choosing the color scheme, creating the frosting and decorations, baking and sculpting the cake, decorating it, and delivering it to the wedding …
Phillips is an active participant in the wedding celebration. He sits down with each couple for a consultation before he creates their custom wedding cake … To him, a wedding cake inherently communicates that “a wedding has occurred, a marriage has begun, and the couple should be celebrated.”
Wedding cakes do, in fact, communicate this message … Although the cake is eventually eaten, that is not its primary purpose.,, The cake’s purpose is to mark the beginning of a new marriage and to celebrate the couple.
Accordingly, Phillips’ creation of custom wedding cakes is expressive. The use of his artistic talents to create a well-recognized symbol that celebrates the beginning of a marriage clearly communicates a message—certainly more so than nude dancing, Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., (1991), or flying a plain red flag, Stromberg v. California (1931). By forcing Phillips to create custom wedding cakes for same-sex weddings, Colorado’s public-accommodations law “alter[s] the expressive content” of his message … Forcing Phillips to make custom wedding cakes for same-sex marriages requires him to, at the very least, acknowledge that same-sex weddings are “weddings” and suggest that they should be celebrated—the precise message he believes his faith forbids. The First Amendment prohibits Colorado from requiring Phillips to “bear witness to [these] fact[s]” or to “affir[m] … a belief with which [he] disagrees.” …
In Obergefell, I warned that the Court’s decision would “inevitabl[y] … come into conflict” with religious liberty, “as individuals … are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” This case proves that the conflict has already emerged. Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day. But, in future cases, the freedom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to “stamp out every vestige of dissent” and “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” If that freedom is to maintain its vitality, reasoning like the Colorado Court of Appeals’ must be rejected.
Justice Ginsburg, with whom Justice Sotomayor joins, dissenting
The Court concludes that “Phillips’ religious objection was not considered with the neutrality that the Free Exercise Clause requires.” This conclusion rests on evidence said to show the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s (Commission) hostility to religion …
The Court concludes that “the Commission’s consideration of Phillips’ religious objection did not accord with its treatment of [the other bakers’] objections.” [But there is a difference.] The bakeries’ refusal to make [William] Jack cakes of a kind they would not make for any customer scarcely resembles Phillips’ refusal to serve Craig and Mullins: Phillips would not sell to Craig and Mullins, for no reason other than their sexual orientation, a cake of the kind he regularly sold to others …
Statements made at the Commission’s public hearings on Phillips’ case provide no firmer support for the Court’s holding today. 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 decision making, 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? The Court does not say. Phillips’ case is thus 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 decision making body, the city council.
For the reasons stated, sensible application of CADA to a refusal to sell any wedding cake to a gay couple should occasion affirmance of the Colorado Court of Appeals’ judgment. I would so rule