The U.S. Supreme Court has heard oral arguments in a case that will decide whether a Colorado baker who refused to service a same-sex couple was being discriminatory or exercising his religious freedom under the First Amendment. The outcome of the case could have broad implications for anti-discrimination laws nationwide.
On Dec. 5, the Supreme Court appeared to be divided during oral arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. U.S. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco argued on behalf of the Trump administration that Jack C. Phillips was exercising his religious beliefs when he refused to bake a cake for Charlies Craig and David Mullins, who were represented by American Civil Liberties Union Director David D. Cole.
In July 2012, Craig and Mullins visited the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado to purchase a cake for their commitment ceremony. Phillips, the establishment's owner, refused to make the cake and told the couple that his Christian beliefs precluded him from endorsing same-sex marriage.
In December 2013, the Colorado Office of Administrative Courts ruled that the Masterpiece Cakeshop had violated the state's anti-discrimination laws. Phillips appealed the decision several times and, in August 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that he could not refuse to service a same-sex couple, according to Fox News.
In July 2016, the conservative nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom petitioned the Supreme Court to hear Phillips' appeal. In June 2017, the court agreed to consider the case.
On Sept. 8, the Trump administration's Department of Justice filed an unsolicited amicus brief supporting Phillips' position that being legally compelled to accommodate same-sex relationships violated his First Amendment rights, HuffPost reports.
"Although public-accommodations laws serve important purposes, they -- like other laws -- must yield to the individual freedoms that the First Amendment guarantees," said DOJ spokesperson Lauren Ehrsam. "That includes the freedom not to create expression for ceremonies that violate one's religious beliefs."
ACLU Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling accused the Trump administration of "advocating for nothing short of a constitutional right to discriminate."
During oral arguments, Justice Anthony Kennedy signaled that he believed Colorado had violated Phillips' religious views.
"Tolerance is essential in a free society," Kennedy said. "Tolerance is most meaningful when it's mutual. It seems to me the state in its position has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips' religious beliefs."
Kennedy also expressed concern about allowing exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, asking Francisco, "If you prevail, could the baker put a sign in his window, 'We do not bake cakes for gay weddings?'"
Justice Neil Gorsuch voiced concern that Colorado commissioners had asserted that Phillips would have to change his beliefs if he wanted to comply with the law. Justice Sonia Sotomayor countered that anti-discrimination laws were designed to change beliefs.
"America's reaction to mixed marriages and to race didn't change on its own," Sotomayor said, according to Politico. "It changed because we had public accommodation laws that forced people to do things that many claimed were against their expressive rights and against their religious rights."
Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted that siding with Phillips would open up anti-discrimination laws across over 20 states, The Washington Post reports.
Breyer expressed concern that his court's potential ruling could "undermine every single civil rights law."
Francisco argued that anti-discrimination laws that did not extend to race should allow for religious exemptions. Cole pushed back on that assertion, stating, "To do that would be to consign gay and lesbian people to second-class status."