The Right to Equal Treatment: Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

In July 2012, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, together with Charlie’s mother Debbie Munn, went to Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Denver-area bakery, to purchase a cake for their wedding reception.  After they informed the bakery’s owner that they were a same-sex couple, he told them he would not sell them a wedding cake. He said that because of his religious beliefs,  he would sell wedding cakes only to heterosexual couples. 

The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which found the bakery had violated Colorado law.  The bakery admits that it had a policy of refusing service to gay couples seeking wedding cakes, but argues that it has a right to discriminate based on religious and free speech grounds.  The Colorado state courts rejected this argument.  The bakery sought review of the state ruling by the Supreme Court, which will hear oral argument on the case this fall.

The question before the Supreme Court  is whether the Constitution provides a right to discriminate in violation of longstanding laws that apply to places of public accommodation, including businesses that are open to the public, like Masterpiece Cakeshop.  

What’s at stake here?

A decision upholding the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s ruling would preserve our longstanding commitment to laws barring discrimination by places of public accommodation.  Laws like Colorado’s ensure that people previously subject to discrimination can go about their day to day life, without worrying whether they will be turned away from a store because of who they are.  These laws provide access to businesses and services that range from medical care to restaurants, from hotels to  public transportation.

Nineteen states, and the District of Columbia, have laws that specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in places of public accommodation. 

A radical reading of the Constitution

 Masterpiece Cakeshop argues that the Constitution’s free speech protections allow businesses with an expressive or creative element to refuse service to some people, in violation of laws against discrimination.  If the Supreme Court were to agree,  any business owner that provides custom services or products could claim a right to discriminate – and it likely wouldn’t be limited to discrimination based on sexual orientation.  This would mean that printers could refuse to sell invitations to a birthday party, a hairdresser could refuse to cut hair for a bat mitzvah, or a caterer could refuse to prepare food for a graduation party.  A funeral home could even refuse service to the surviving spouse of a gay couple.  It could even allow businesses to argue that they have a right to violate other kinds of laws that protect consumers, like fraud protections and more.

The bakery also argues that its religious beliefs entitle it to an exemption from antidiscrimination laws.  If the court agreed with this view, it could allow all kinds of businesses to refuse service because of religious objections.  It could open the door to discrimination against people of minority faiths, against women, against single parents, and more. 

Have there been other challenges like this to nondiscrimination laws?

While most businesses, including most small businesses, oppose exemptions to allow discrimination, this isn’t the first time courts have encountered objections to nondiscrimination laws on religious or free speech grounds.   In 1964, soon after the federal Civil Rights Act was enacted to bar race discrimination by places of public accommodation, a small chain of BBQ restaurants in South Carolina called Piggie Park continued to refuse service to Black customers.  The owner argued that his religious beliefs about integration should allow him to break the law; he lost at every stage.  

Citing religious beliefs, Bob Jones University argued that it had a right to refuse to admit interracial couples or students who supported interracial marriage.  Schools have argued for the right to pay women less, because their faith said men were heads of households.  A newspaper argued for  a free speech right to post “help wanted” that listed jobs for men and jobs for women separately, in violation of anti-discrimination laws.  And a law firm sought to defend its refusal to hire women as partners, claiming First Amendment rights of expression allowed the partnership to choose to associate only with other men.  In all these instances, the courts refused to accept the idea of a constitutional right to discriminate that the bakery seeks here. 

Any change that would authorize discrimination in this case would undermine the nation’s civil rights laws.  It would essentially permit Masterpiece Cakeshop to put in its window a sign that says, “Wedding Cakes for Heterosexuals Only.”  It would mean allowing the Constitution to be used to protect discrimination.

View comments (37)
Read the Terms of Use


What if the particular bake shop, restaurant, or hair cutter were the only such business within 50 miles of a particular person's location? Or I am the only dentist within 100 miles of a particular town and I don't provide services to anyone who is not a Baptist?


If there is only one cake shop in 100 miles, and it is conducting its business in a way that is disagreeable to its community, then it sounds like you should start a cake shop that conducts itself better and watch the cash roll in. Your hypothetical is silly, and would never exist in reality.


Why are they bigots? Because they don't agree with you or your lifestyle? So I suppose in your view it is okay to discriminate and hate People based on their religious beliefs or because they don't agree with you? I asked you again sir who is the bigot?


Congress needs to update the "Civil Rights Act" to better protect LGBT persons and to deal with post-9/11 blacklisting victims by state Fusion Centers (similar to CoinTelPro andMcCarthyism but more covert).


Laws don't override Constitutional Amendments.


"I am among you as he that serves."


I think the owner of the cake should as a matter of ethics let potential customers know that they oppose gay marriage on religious grounds. Gay couples would then have the option of taking their business elsewhere. Should the couple choose to order the cake, it would be with the understanding that the cake be made to spec, and with the realization that the owner may not be able to put their full heart into the job. Reasonable accommodations could be made regarding delivery of the cake to ensure the owner's religious beliefs were not compromised. that the owner would not be obligated to keep up on trends.

Eric Smith

I don't understand why the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case if there aren't at least four justices who are ready to side with the cake shop. It's a clear case of discrimination and the lower courts have ruled it as such. Why not just let the ruling stand? What's to argue? You are not "open to the public" if you decide you aren't going to serve this customer because he's gay, and that customer because he's a minority. It is a complete perversion of both the speech and religion clauses to say the First Amendment allows businesses open to the public to discriminate.

Isaiah X. Smith

I somewhat disagree and agree with you. The United States Supreme Court refusing or agreeing to hear a case does not mean that the United States Supreme Court is going to take the side of the petitioner. It is extremely sad to see some political figures in the Untied States filing amicus briefs in support of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. when they need to honor their oath of office by protecting those that are in a vulnerable community. If the Untied States Supreme Court decides to take the side of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., then public accommodations will have a right to deny a customer service based on the race of the customer, in which would violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I would absolutely hate to see the United States going backwards to the horse and to the buggy days, but I absolutely hope that the United States Supreme Court will take the side of the ACLU and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. I am glad that we do agree that public accommodations need to be open to the public. It is just like a 501(c)(3) not fulfilling or following it's exempt status definition or requirements.

Randy William A...

I am not a legal scholar. I only play one on Facebook.

There is no legitimate reason to allow anyone's "religion" to effect discrimination of other people's basic rights in a civil, pluralistic society. Religion is a private matter that must be respected in private (and corporate ways: i.e. the freedom to assemble, the freedom to speak one's doctrine, etc.) that only effect the rights of the participation of the adherents in said religion. Whenever one's private religous beliefs conflict with their public, civic participation such that it denies any class of people the same access to the benefits provided by the person holding said religious beliefs in a publicly offered venue--the rights of the potential benefactor ALWAYS takes precident over those believed to be held by the potential provider. The fact that the provider may therefore be limited in their ability to provide said benefit is a time honored and long revered tenant of religious belief: sacrifce. It is not the responsibility of the state to ameleorate the personal sacrifices that adherence to any religious doctrine may impose upon a believer. It is the responsibility of the civil state to provide a reasonable, equal and protected order for the common occurance of commerce and social intercourse between well meaning members of our society.

Furthermore, religious belief does not negate the responsibility of ALL members of society to contribute to the greater good of said society as it is a right protected by said society providing a degree of privileged benefit. In the same way that freedom of speech is not limiteless to allow for speech that is harmful and without obligation to the corporate good, so, too, religious participation does not negate reasonable individual obligations to the greater pluralistic community.


Stay Informed