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Gay Cake Case: How a 7-2 Decision Is 'Narrow'

Supreme Court sides with baker, but didn't settle big question of gay rights vs. religious liberty
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 4, 2018 10:10 AM CDT
Updated Jun 4, 2018 12:55 PM CDT

(Newser) – In one of the most closely watched cases of its current term, the Supreme Court sided with a baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple. But even though the decision was 7-2 in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, the ruling is seen as a narrow one in a legal sense, reports CNN. That's because the justices issued their ruling to apply to the specifics of this case and didn't settle the bigger issue: whether business owners have a right to refuse gay patrons on religious grounds. As Anthony Kennedy wrote, that issue "must await further elaboration," per the AP. Details and developments:

  • The origins: The case began in 2012 when same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins asked Phillips' Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood to make a cake for their wedding. Phillips refused, saying he objected to gay marriage because of his religious beliefs, and a six-year legal fight ensued. See a timeline at Fox News.
  • The ruling: The Supreme Court declared that the state's Civil Rights Commission erred by treating Phillips' religious objections with "hostility," reports the Washington Post. A key quote: "The State’s interest could have been weighed against Phillips’ sincere religious objections in a way consistent with the requisite religious neutrality that must be strictly observed," wrote Kennedy. "But the official expressions of hostility to religion in some of the commissioners’ comments were inconsistent with that requirement ..."

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  • 2 dissents: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor cast the two dissenting votes. "Phillips would not sell to Craig and Mullins, for no reason other than their sexual orientation, a cake of the kind he regularly sold to others," Ginsburg wrote, per USA Today.
  • Trump Jr: Reaffirming that the court ruled "narrowly," Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog writes that the court "seemed to leave open the possibility that a different outcome could result in a future case, and it did not rule at all one of the central arguments in the case—whether compelling Phillips to bake a cake for a same-sex couple would violate his right to freedom of speech." Still, Donald Trump Jr. initially mocked a news tweet using the term "narrowly"—basing his scorn on the fact that the vote was 7-2—and was taking grief because of it, notes the Daily Dot.
  • The impact: The limited ruling gives both sides of the debate something to cheer about. Gay people did not see their right to equal service trampled, while anti-gay activists get a "midsize and possibly temporary but still very real win," writes Mark Joseph Stern at Slate. So who loses? "Everybody who hoped this decision would definitively settle the ostensible clash between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom."
  • From the right: At the American Conservative, Rod Dreher is pleased, actually "stunned," with the ruling—to a degree. State officials blew it by being so openly disparaging of Phillips' religious beliefs. "But before we religious liberty advocates get too excited about it, let us ask: How would this ruling have gone if the Colorado commissioners had not been so blatantly bigoted in their comments about the Masterpiece case?" Concealing bigotry is not so hard to do, he notes.
  • Travel ban: Blogger Leah Litman at Take Care parses Kennedy's logic and writing in this ruling and applies it to President Trump's ban on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries. The upshot is that it could be bad news for the travel ban, she writes. The case "reiterated a point basic to our constitutional system—the government cannot act on the basis of animus or hostility toward a particular religion."
(Read more US Supreme Court stories.)

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