The U.S. Supreme Court ducked the central question in a closely watched case that put religious freedoms and gay rights on trial. But the court's ruling did send a message to governments investigating discrimination cases, an attorney for the Colorado baker in the case said.
In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of baker Jack Phillips, who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The court said the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was hostile toward Philips. The high court found the commission violated the baker's religious freedoms, but it didn’t say his free speech rights were violated by Colorado's anti-discrimination laws.
Phillips in 2012 offered up other baked goods to a same-sex couple, but ultimately refused to make them a custom wedding cake. The couple took their discrimination case to the commission, which found Phillips guilty of discrimination.
“The Commission ordered Phillips to ‘cease and desist from discriminating against ... same-sex couples by refusing to sell them wedding cakes or any product [they] would sell to heterosexual couples,’ ” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. The commission also required “‘comprehensive staff training on the Public Accommodations section … and changes to any and all company policies to comply with . . . this Order.’”
Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Kristen Waggoner said the commission hurt Phillips’ business.
“The commission's order had forced him to give up 40 percent of his business, his custom wedding design work, and he lost six out of his ten employees,” Waggoner said. “The freezers that were once full of cakes and the Saturdays that were bustling with activity are not that way anymore.”
The majority opinion cited several examples where the Colorado commission was “hostile” toward Phillips’ religious views.
“For the reasons just described, the commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the state’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint,” Kennedy wrote in the opinion.
“[T]he Court must draw the inference that Phillips’ religious objection was not considered with the neutrality that the Free Exercise Clause requires,” the opinion said.
Waggoner said Monday’s ruling gives Phillips a chance to start picking up the pieces and getting back to work. She also said the high court’s opinion sends a message to governments across the country.
“You have to apply the same standards and the government cannot put its thumb on the scale because it supports one particular ideology over another,” she said. “It can’t bully people.”
The court's decision doesn't open the door to discrimination, said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
“I think it’s one of these things that we’re going to have to look at vigorously enforcing on the basis of not letting anyone getting a false message from this that they're now some how free to discriminate,” Yohnka said.
“Whether that rule then violates the free speech rights is a question for another day,” Waggoner said.
She noted several cases that are pending in the courts addressing similar issues, but ultimately she said Monday’s ruling tells governments across the country they have to enforce the law in an even manner.
“That would mean that a lesbian graphics designer would be forced to design for an opposite sex rally, a Democratic speech writer would be forced to write for President [Donald] Trump,” Waggoner said. But "that result I don’t think is appropriate under our constitution, nor is it consistent with the kind of society we wish to maintain with free and individualistic thought.”
Yohnka said such examples are hyperbolic for the sake of argument.
“The truth is that’s not the kind of thing we see happen,” Yohnka said. “These cases across the country have really followed the advent of the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, and those are the ones we’re seeing really play out.”
Yohnka also said he doesn’t expect the Human Rights Commission in Illinois to change how it handles cases based on Monday's ruling.
“In the times that we’ve worked with the [Illinois] commission, I’ve always thought they’ve been very respectful of all parties,” Yohnka said. “And I don’t expect that to change in any way, shape or form as the result of this single decision.”
In southern Illinois, a bed and breakfast was found in August to have discriminated against a same-sex couple for refusing to host their wedding ceremony. The Illinois Human Rights Commission fined Timber Creek bed and breakfast in Paxton $80,000.
Yohnka said there has to be a balancing act between mutual respect and patience in dealing with such allegations of discrimination.
Equality Illinois, the statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, called on businesses and the state "to understand there is no change to the Illinois Human Rights Act that requires LGBTQ and other protected people to be served without discrimination."