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.

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Anonymous

The question is can the state preclude a cake maker who wants to bake a cake for a gay couple from baking it? if the answer is no then it can't make another baker to bake a cake for a gay wedding; rights goes both ways.

Anonymous

The baker had every right to refuse service if it was against deeply held religious beliefs. The last time I checked his right didn't stop when their feelings got hurt how hard was it to say thank you walk out and find somebody else to make the cake

Isaiah X. Smith

I must respectfully disagree. If so, then public accommodations would be perfectly allowed to deny customers service based on the race of the customer, in which I believe is against the law under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I believe that "public" accommodations needs to serve members of the public.

Isaiah X. Smith

I am extremely happy that the American Civil Liberties Union has decided to take this case and to fight for all individuals being allowed to be served in public accommodations. This kind of reminds me of the 1900s where some business believed that it was okay to deny individuals service due to their race or public officials denying interracial couples marriage licenses in the 1900s. If the Untied States Supreme Court sides with Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., then public accommodations will have a right to deny individuals service on the basis of a customer's race and this will open the door to a lot of issues. I hope that the Supreme Court of the Untied States will side with the ACLU and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission because "public" accommodations needs to serve all. The Untied States cannot afford to go back to the horse and to the buggy days. Lastly, it is important to remember that bigotry wrapped in religious bigotry is still bigotry.

BlueDog

The Constitution is the law of our land.. I can't believe any organization based on law would suggest that it should be interpreted according to how it affects people or entities. In the Hobby Lobby case there was a decision based on law, and it made sense, because it WAS based on law. If this case is decided on interpretations based on personal beliefs and opinions of how people will be affected then that is NOT based on law. 1st amendment guarantees freedom to practice religion, and freedom to express yourself. Maybe the baker should've decorated a cake that supported his views and offended the couple, then this would never have become what it has, but at some point, this had to be adjudicated and decided.

ScholarConstit...

The proposition that a decision by the Supreme Court in favor of baker Phillips opens the flood gates to every printer, hairdresser and caterer to refuse undertaking service to gays is absolutely specious. No case law has been cited by anyone anywhere which has held that these types of business activities constitute unique creative works of art, as is the exact proposition that Phillips maintains he is engaged in.

ScholarConstit...

Your conclusion that a favorable Supreme Court decision upholding this baker's refusal to design a custom cake for a gay couple will allow him to put a sign in his store window stating: " Wedding Cakes for Heterosexuals Only" is incorrect. Phillips position as accepted by every court and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission is that he would sell pre-made wedding cakes to gays, but will not design a unique custom made one. So, to restore your credibility, please edit this conclusion to read: "Custom designed Wedding Cakes for Heteros. Only". Thank you.

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