In a 7-2 ruling on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted in favour of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the bakery that denied service to a same-sex couple in Colorado. It was the court’s decision that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had been hostile to the business owner Jack Phillips’ ‘religious beliefs,’ and that he was not provided a fair hearing. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor were the only opposing votes and even though the case ended with an unfavourable outcome for the LGBTQ community, the Supreme Court has insisted that the ruling does not set a precedent for future cases. “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognising 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,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The case began back in 2012, when the defendant claimed that he had a right to discriminate against same-sex couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig because of his religious beliefs. Originally, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and lower courts came to the conclusion that Phillips had illegally discriminated against the couple by refusing their request to make the cake. After losing the case, he then took it to the Supreme Court. Many LGBTQ advocates then became increasingly concerned with the outcome, seeing it as an open invitation for future cases of sexual prejudice to be masked behind the cover of religious beliefs.
Currently, many states and the federal government do not have explicit language against LGBTQ discrimination, claiming that the laws that protect people from heterosexism are sufficient to cover their rights. However, these laws are vague, with room for states’ interpretation.
In latest ruling, the serious question of whether or not religious beliefs can allow someone to discriminate against another based on their sexual orientation has been side-stepped. Instead of facing the issue at hand, the court attempted to take on the case as a separate issue from the topic of LGBTQ rights. Although the most recent decision is premised on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s poor treatment of Phillips, it is impossible to ignore the politics of the ruling, especially when the defendant’s attorneys included members of the anti-LGBTQ advocacy organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, in their argument. This organization held that Phillips’ status as a baker makes him an artist and that forcing him to sell cakes to same-sex couples would stifle his right to artistic expression.
On the other hand, the argument against Masterpiece Cakeshop, made by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), held that the case actually had nothing to do with Phillips’ right to free speech and religious expression. They argued instead that Masterpiece Cakeshop was in the wrong, for the reason that it is unlawful under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act to deny goods or services to someone due to their disability, race, creed, sex, sexual orientation, marital states, national origin, or ancestry.
By denying David Mullins and Charlie Craig the service of creating a wedding cake, Jack Phillips made a statement that the couple was unworthy of something others were, solely because of their sexual orientation. If the rights of same-sex couples are to be protected – which the law states that they are – then the decision made by the Supreme Court denied Mullins and Craig of their civil liberties, and consequently, may have opened the door for future cases of heterosexism to enter the courts in hopes of finding the same result. Even if the Colorado Civil Rights Commission “mistreated” the defendant, it can be argued that this is not enough reason to provide a one-time-only legal discrimination pass.
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