The U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) just issued its ruling in the Masterpiece Cake case (click here for the Wikipedia notes on it). For those not familiar with it, it was a case involving a Colorado baker who didn’t make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding reception. The couple filed a complaint under Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (“CADA”). A commission hearing the case found in favor of the couple.
SCOTUS held that the commission was required to exercise neutrality towards litigants with regards to the free exercise of religion. Because a commissioner was allowed to make non-neutral remarks against the baker in its decision, this neutrality was not present. As a result, the commission’s ruling was reversed.
What does this even mean?
While many people were probably looking forward to another landmark decision, this case reflects what SCOTUS normally does in controversial times. It found a way to sidestep the larger controversy, passing on the bigger issue. In the opinion, the Court recognized that at least two fundamental rights were at issue for the baker, with many different problems in reconciling them (Masterpiece Cakeshop, at 1-2). Ruling a specific way might cause problems later on down the road.
First, there was the issue of the free exercise of religion (“Free Exercise”). It’s a somewhat vague right granted in the First Amendment, and it’s historically been tough to pin down. In this case, Free Exercise meant the baker not wanting to use his skills to make a cake for a gay wedding reception.
Second, there was the issue of the right to free speech (“Free Speech”). It’s also found in the First Amendment, but it’s a little better defined. Still, making the decision on these grounds might end up with some weird results. On one end, bakers might be allowed to get around equal treatment by using speech as a pretext. The other extreme might require bakers to do all sorts of shocking and offensive things to satisfy customers’ whims.
Instead of deciding either of these things, SCOTUS just said the commission wasn’t neutral. Significantly, it reversed the order without remanding for further proceedings. In effect, this means the baker won and won’t have to do anything the commission ordered him to do. Also, it does not give other bakers a license to just stop making cakes for gay weddings.
Where do we go from here?
When someone opens a business to the public, whatever duties that might entail is certainly up for debate. The boundary between a private citizen and a business owner can get blurred. In other words, if this baker was just doing this informally, there wouldn’t be a case here. This matter could have been settled privately.
Really, coming to an agreement is something everyone should want. What if the baker told the couple that making the cake would have made him uncomfortable? Maybe the couple would have tried to find a different baker out of respect for that person’s feelings. Or maybe they could have talked it out, and the couple could have put his fears to rest. Either of these situations would have been more preferable to throwing the situation into a legal meat grinder.
The sad fact is that this case doesn’t do justice to the many gay couples out there who just want to celebrate a happy occasion. Straight couples generally don’t have to worry about being refused sale on religious grounds. This includes people of different faiths. Gay couples are not inherently any less deserving of such human dignity.