The Cake Case – What Does It Mean?

The U.S. Supreme Court finally issued its opinion in the famous case of the commercial baker in Colorado who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

The decision was 7-2 in favor of the baker. Religious conservatives are hailing it as a victory for freedom of religion, freedom of religious expression and freedom of speech. Those in the LGBT community and others are worried that the decision is an invitation to discriminate based upon claims of religious belief. The Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t support either position.

The decision turns on very narrow grounds and the specific facts of this case. The decision tries to avoid the broader issues that captivated the public’s attention.

In Colorado there is a law that prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation. When the baker refused to bake the cake, the gay couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Commission ruled for the gay couple. This decision was appealed through the judicial system until it reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court ignored, I am sure intentionally, the most provocative legal arguments. Instead, the majority seized upon comments made by one of the commissioners during the original hearing and found that they were “inappropriate” and “dismissive” and indicated unfairness. According to the opinion, “The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here. 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.”

The objectionable comments made by the commissioner were to the effect that “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.” According to the opinion, these statements are some evidence of “hostility to religion”.

Whether those words indicate hostility to religion rather than hostility to discrimination is debatable. Nevertheless, it was those words that gave the U.S. Supreme Court an excuse to rule without tackling the more formidable issues that framed the public’s understanding of the case.

It is worth asking what the Court’s ruling would have been had the commissioner said nothing at the hearing and not given the Court an easy out.

There are other similar cases making their way to the Court which will provide an opportunity, if the Court wants an opportunity, to define the boundaries.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Wong