WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday for a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but left undecided if a business owner’s religious beliefs or free-speech rights justify refusing some services to gay people.
Instead, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s 7-to-2 decision focused on what he described as religious bias on the part of Colorado Civil Rights Commission members who ruled against baker Jack Phillips, who owns Masterpiece Cakeshop.
“The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here,” Kennedy wrote.
But he acknowledged the decision was more of a start than a conclusion to the court’s consideration of the rights of those with religious objections to same-sex marriage and the rights of gay people, who “cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.”
Future cases that raise those issues “must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
Such a case could come quickly: The court is set to consider this week whether to review a Washington state Supreme Court decision that a florist could not legally decline to provide flowers to a same-sex wedding there.
Kennedy’s narrow ruling drew support of three of the court’s consistent conservatives — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — and two of its consistent liberals, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
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Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome but said he would have ruled for Phillips on free-speech grounds. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying comments from the Colorado commissioners did not change the outcome of the case.
In a conference call with reporters, Phillips thanked the court for recognizing “the injustice that the government inflicted on me.” He said that “tolerance is a two-way street” and added, “If we want to have freedom for ourselves, we have to extend it to others with whom we disagree about important issues like the meaning of marriage.”
But James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the couple at the center of the fight, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, pointed to Kennedy’s protective language about gay citizens.
“The bakery may have won the battle, but it has lost the war,” Esseks said in a call with reporters.
Across the country, florists, bakers, photographers and others have claimed that being forced to offer their wedding services to same-sex couples violates their rights. Courts have routinely turned down the business owners, saying state anti-discrimination laws require businesses that are open to the public to treat all potential customers equally.
In the Iowa legislative session earlier this year, a “religious freedom” bill — Senate File 2154 — died amid a legislative deadline. The bill would have provided a more robust defense to a person who asserted his or her exercise of freedom is substantially burdened by government action.
One of its sponsors, Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, said he’s revisit the measure next year.
There’s no dispute about what triggered the court case in 2012, when same-sex marriage was prohibited in Colorado.
Craig and Mullins decided to get married in Massachusetts, where it was legal. They would return to Denver for a reception. Those helping with the plans suggested they get a cake from Masterpiece Cakeshop.
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The couple arrived with Craig’s mother and a book of ideas, but Phillips cut short the meeting when he learned that the cake was to celebrate the couple’s marriage.
“Today’s decision means our fight against discrimination and unfair treatment will continue,” the couple said Monday in a statement. “We have always believed that in America, you should not be turned away from a business open to the public because of who you are. We brought this case because no one should have to face the shame, embarrassment, and humiliation of being told ‘we don’t serve your kind here’ that we faced, and we will continue fighting until no one does.”