Gay Marriage, Wedding Cakes and Discrimination

Posted in Sexual Harassment on June 7, 2018

By John Winer

June 7, 2018

As the civil rights movement in America continues to progress, LGBTQ issues continue to be at the forefront, both in legislatures and courthouses. While there are some very clear lines in terms of what does/doesn’t make up discrimination, several areas remain murky. A recent ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States did little to further carve out any rights or boundaries as the court attempted to walk a very tricky line.

In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-11, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 in favor of a bakery that refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple looking to get married. The owner, Jack Phillips, refused to make a cake for the union of David Mullins and Charlie Craig because, according to him, conveying a message of support for same-sex marriage was at odds with his religious faith. The two men then filed a complaint with Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission claiming that Mr. Phillips had violated state law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. Both the Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled against Mr. Phillips. However, writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a “narrow” ruling in favor of Mr. Phillips. At issue in the decision was the attitude of certain members of the Commission toward religion and religious expression. According to Kennedy, certain panel members acted with “clear and impermissible hostility” to religious beliefs, including one commissioner who said “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.”

Most complex in the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision is that this was a business accused of discrimination, using a religious defense. It was not a religious institution such as a church or synagogue, rather a for-profit operation. Many observers thought Justice Kennedy essentially held his nose up toward the case in general, citing prejudice on both sides of the case. He pointed out the comments from members of the Commission but also wrote “our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.”

As a result, representatives from the Alliance Defending Freedom, which strives to protect religious freedom, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which fights for civil rights, both claimed some sort of victory.

Workplace discrimination based upon race, gender, sexual orientation or any other issues is prohibited by law. It is also unlawful for a business to deny services based upon these and other classifications. This decision was written in such a way as to have as little impact as possible on existing law, and so onlookers with have to wait for another substantial decision before state and federal law makes any sort of major shift.