SCOTUS Takes Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

On the last day of the term, the Supreme Court granted cert in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It shouldn’t have. Objectively straightforward, the case involves First Amendment claims made by Masterpiece Cakeshop and its owner, Jack Phillips, which are foreclosed by existing precedent and have been rejected by every court, judge and agency to consider them.

The facts are simple and unfortunate. Jack Phillips owns a suburban Denver bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop. Charlie Craig and David Mullins are a same-sex couple that married out of state and then returned to Colorado to celebrate their nuptials with friends and family. For the occasion, they sought a wedding cake. Unfortunately, they went to Masterpiece Cakeshop and were met by Phillips in the store. That’s where things went south. Craig and Mullins indicated that they wanted a cake for their wedding, without providing any additional details whatsoever. However, Phillips refused to serve them, without knowing any details about the cake they wanted. Phillips explained that he had a policy of not selling cakes for same-sex weddings, but that they could purchase something else there if they wanted. Oh.

Colorado has an anti-discrimination statute (“the Act”) barring discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry. Phillips and his bakery violated this statute by their behavior towards Craig and Mullins – that much is not disputed.

Craig and Mullins then filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which conducted an investigation and found that Masterpiece Cakeshop violated the Act. The Colorado Attorney General then filed an administrative action, wherein summary judgment was granted against Masterpiece Cakeshop. The company then appealed to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and then to the Colorado Court of Appeals, losing all along the way. The Colorado Supreme Court denied the company’s petition for review. The company and its owner, Phillips, then petitioned for cert to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the petition last week after a whopping 14 re-lists. Phillips and his company make two claims: that the decision violates their rights of free speech and free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

The free exercise claim is straightforward. In Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 885 (1990), an individual was denied unemployment benefits after he was fired for the religious use of peyote. In rejecting the former employee’s Free Exercise claim, the Court found that “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).” Id. at 879. Thus, a generally applicable law such as one banning peyote does not violate the Free Exercise claim just because it happens to bar conduct that some engage in for religious reasons. Likewise, non-discrimination statutes such as the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act do not target religion, they simply prohibit discrimination on the basis of a protected class. Said statutes are valid, neutral, and of general applicability. Countless similar anti-discrimination statutes across the country have been validated on that basis.

That Phillips, the store owner, doesn’t want to follow the law is irrelevant. Phillips argues that he believes that god would be displeased by Phillips’ participation in a same-sex wedding. That’s his right to believe that, but it doesn’t exempt him from anti-discrimination statutes. Some misguided people believe that god is displeased when a woman has a full-time job instead of being a housewife; but if a manager at Fedex Office refused to print all married women’s resumes on that basis, the Free Exercise claim would grant him no reprieve.

Jack Phillips is essentially asking the Supreme Court to punch a religion-sized hole in all anti-discrimination statutes, for everyone. This would have disastrous consequences. For example, a CEO buys into the disgusting stereotype that women are of inferior intellect and therefore he refuses to hire them? Well, under Phillips’ logic, as long as the CEO’s beliefs stem from his religious preferences, suddenly he would be free from the shackles of non-discrimination statutes. A restaurant doesn’t want to serve African-Americans? As long as his religion proscribes the mixing of races, then he is in the clear. Or, if Phillips wanted to refuse making cakes for interracial marriages, under his logic he could do that too. Obviously, this position is untenable.

Lastly, Phillips argues that various prior rulings in other cases by the Colorado Civil Service Commission render its application of the Act no longer one of neutral applicability, thus requiring strict scrutiny review. That argument was rejected repeatedly in the lower courts. Even if it is valid, however, the Supreme Court is not a court of error correction. Even if the Supreme Court was concerned regarding the Colorado Civil Service Commission’s past application of the otherwise lawful Act, this is hardly a reason to take the case; at best, even in that circumstance, the Supreme Court could have simply GVR’ed the case back to the Colorado courts on that issue. Simply put, the Supreme Court takes cases about the intersection of discrimination statutes and the First Amendment, not whether the Colorado Civil Service Commission may have erred in its application of law. That’s not what the Supreme Court is here for, and it says as such repeatedly. Indeed, Rule 10 of the Supreme Court Rules, “Consideration Governing Review on Writ of Certiorari,” states, “[a] petition for a writ of certiorari is rarely granted when the asserted error consists of erroneous factual findings or the misapplication of a properly stated rule of law.”

Then there’s the free speech claim. The only problem is that no speech is involved. Phillips was not asked to put specific words on a cake. He wasn’t asked even to make a specific design. He didn’t have any information except: gay wedding. On that basis alone, he refused to serve Mullins and Smith. The cake could have been plain white with no text. It could have been a pre-made sheet cake sitting in a display case. It could have been a cake design traditionally used for birthday parties. It didn’t matter to him. This demonstrates that it wasn’t the particular design or speech that Phillips objected to, it was the very concept of providing a cake – any cake – for a same-sex wedding. In fact, Phillips admits as such in his cert petition, indicating that he does not make cakes for same-sex weddings because “Phillips’ religious conviction compels him to create cakes celebrating only marriages that are consistent with his understanding of God’s design.” The particular speech or design of the cake was irrelevant.

This case is about doing, not speaking. And Colorado is plainly allowed to regulate conduct to proscribe discriminatory behavior. “Where the government does not target conduct on the basis of its expressive content, acts are not shielded from regulation merely because they express a discriminatory idea or philosophy.” R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, Minn., 505 U.S. 377, 390 (1992).

Phillips makes the argument that forcing him to make gay wedding cakes sends the message that he agrees with the concept of gay marriage. Again, examples demonstrate the fallacy of this argument. Could another baker refuse to serve an interracial couple because doing so might send the message that he or she agreed with interracial marriage? Could a KKK grand wizard who owns a diner refuse to serve African-Americans, since doing so might send the message that he didn’t support white supremacy? Countless examples exist to undercut Phillips’ flawed argument.

To be sure, the closer question is whether the Act could mandate specific speech on the cake. But that’s not what’s going on here. Phillips hadn’t agreed to bake the cake and then balked when instructed to put certain verbiage on the cake. He wasn’t asked to write “I support gay marriage” or “god loves gay marriage”. He was asked to make a cake; that many cakes happen to have expressive aspects is not dispositive, especially since Phillips refused the couple before knowing what if any speech or expression was actually involved.

Neither is it persuasive that Phillips is – as he says in his briefs – a “cake artist”. Phillips’ self-professed artistry doesn’t exclude him from anti-discrimination statutes. Do wedding dancers, or a wedding DJ, or a wedding caterer possess the constitutional right to only perform for Christian weddings, on the basis that they are artists who believed that God only prefers Christian weddings? Obviously not.

That’s why its so puzzling that the Supreme Court took this case. This case is easy, and any complicated aspects of it relate only to the application of facts to law. Again, a future baker in a similar situation would have a much more plausible case if he was asked to actually put pen to paper (or pastry bag to cake, as the case may be). There are indeed some interesting questions: When is business conduct sufficiently imbued with expression so as to trigger First Amendment protection? When can the free exercise of religion permit businesses to engage in otherwise-proscribed conduct? When do anti-discrimination statutes impermissibly infringe on First Amendment rights? Would Phillips possess a claim under a state or federal RFRA statute? However, these questions really just aren’t implicated here.

That four Justices took this case is troubling. That the case languished in re-list purgatory until after Justice Gorsuch took the bench is even more troubling. This suggests that before his arrival, the court felt that it would be headed for a 4-4 deadlock. Now, it looks like there may be five in Phillips’ favor. True, the Court could issue a very limited decision reversing and remanding based on some specific error it found in the Colorado courts’ reasoning or specific application of law. That might be one of the better-case scenarios at this point, and the Court has done this in some other cases recently, like Hernandez v. Mesa and Los Angeles v. Mendez. Or it could go the Trinity v. Comer route and include a footnote limiting the holding to the specific set of facts at issue. But as I said above, the Supreme Court really isn’t here to discuss the finer points of the logic of the Colorado Civil Service Commission. Thus, you have to think that the Court is ready to reach the merits of this case head-on, with at least a few of the Justices primed to rule in Phillips’ favor. That is nothing to celebrate.

Author: RMLockman

Civil rights attorney. Views expressed are mine only.

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