“The [Colorado Civil Rights] Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cake Shop vs. Colorado (read it in full below).
As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. No commissioners objected to the comments. Nor were they mentioned in the later state-court ruling or disavowed in the briefs filed here. The comments thus cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case.
The decision was 7-2, but the decision itself is very narrow. I think most people look at this case as a question of whether or not the state can compel a private entity to engage in an act of commercial expression. Or, to put it more succinctly, whether the government can force you to bake a cake.
This decision doesn’t answer that question. The court didn’t say that it’s unconstitutional the government to apply discrimination laws to baking a cake. The court said that in this specific incident the commission in Colorado was guilty of religious bias.
It’s hard to know what this means for legal disputes over similar situations. The court holds that “these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
In other words, the bureaucrats in Colorado went about it the wrong way, but in the view of the Supreme Court it’s not necessarily unconstitutional for states to crack down on businesses that discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation even if said discrimination is motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs.
Or, as Justice Elena Kagan put it in her concurring decision, the government “can treat a baker who discriminates based on sexual orientation differently from a baker who does not” but only if the state’s actions “are not infected by religious hostility or bias.”
Here’s the full ruling: