Many LGBTQ individuals’ immediate reactions on social media to the Supreme Court’s much-anticipated decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case expressed alarm and fear. While there are reasons to be concerned about ongoing efforts to pit religious freedom against equal rights, the decision is far better than many people thought it might be and contains much that the LGBTQ community should cheer.
The court ruled 7-2 in favor of the baker who appealed a ruling that he had violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law by refusing to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. Nevertheless, the baker’s victory is extremely narrow.
The Supreme Court refused to endorse the broad constitutional right to discriminate being sought by anti-LGBTQ forces, even in the charged context of weddings. Rather, it ruled for the baker on grounds unique to his case. The court concluded that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s decision needed to be reversed only because, in the majority’s view, the commission denied the baker neutral and respectful consideration of his claims. The court pointed to one commissioner who called the baker’s position “despicable” rhetoric and to what the majority saw as inconsistent reasoning between the commission’s rejection of the baker’s claims and the commission’s acceptance of what the court saw as analogous arguments in other cases.
While one can disagree with that criticism of the commission, it’s hard to disagree that government decision-makers should treat all who come before them fairly, even-handedly, and without hostility.
But the Supreme Court did not stop there. Instead, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion powerfully reaffirms the conclusion underlying his landmark rulings in Lawrence v. Texas (striking down state sodomy laws), United States v. Windsor (requiring federal recognition of same-sex couples’ marriages), and Obergefell v. Hodges (concluding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry) that “gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.”
Indeed, the opinion goes on to conclude that: “For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts.”
Most importantly, the decision unequivocally reaffirms the Supreme Court’s 50-year-old precedent that religious or philosophical objections to treating others equally “do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”
The opinion explains that claims to religious freedom must have narrow limits: “When it comes to weddings, it can be assumed that a member of the clergy who objects to gay marriage on moral and religious grounds could not be compelled to perform the ceremony without denial of his or her right to the free exercise of religion…. Yet if that exception were not confined, then a long list of persons who provide goods and services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations.”
Such constraints on religious exemption claims are necessary, the majority agreed, “lest all purveyors of goods and services who object to gay marriages for moral and religious reasons in effect be allowed to put up signs saying ‘no goods or services will be sold if they will be used for gay marriages,’ something that would impose a serious stigma on gay persons.”
Those are all heady words for a decision over which some, in my view, prematurely hit the panic button.
While the decision leaves much to be resolved for another day, this was not the win our opponents were praying for. No doubt they will double down in their efforts to win exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. We need to do everything we can to fight back against those efforts. At the same time, we have to pass both the federal Equality Act and state laws that provide LGBTQ people protections against discrimination in the 32 states that still lack such express, comprehensive, statutory shields against denials, in the words of the opinion, of our equal “dignity and worth.”
I believe those efforts will be helped, not hindered, by the court’s decision. The opinion affirms that government entities have the authority “to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services.” Now, we just need to get them all to clearly do so. Equality demands nothing less, and, this decision reestablishes that the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom does not stand in the way.
Jon W. Davidson, former legal director of Lambda Legal, has been a leading LGBT legal rights advocate and constitutional scholar for more than 30 years.