Statement of Mary L. Bonauto on Supreme Court Ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado

Mary Bonauto is the Civil Rights Project Director for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). She successfully argued the marriage equality case Obergefell v. Hodges before the Supreme Court in 2015.

This ruling forthrightly affirms the validity of anti-discrimination laws that protect classes of persons when they seek goods and services on the same terms as others in the public marketplace. “As a general rule,” the Court stated, religious or philosophical objections to other people “do[es] not allow business owners” or economic or societal “actors” to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services” or to “put up signs” excluding them. This ruling refused to embrace the central premise of the Cakeshop and U.S. Department of Justice, both of which sought to use religion and free speech to justify discrimination against a gay couple.

Ironically, the Cakeshop and baker technically won, but only because the Supreme Court ruled that they had not received “neutral and respectful consideration” of their arguments by the state commission that heard and decided their case.  To that end, the Court cited comments made by Commissioners on the case that the Court said denigrated religion, suggested incompatibility between being a person of faith and person in business, and noted what it said was a possible inconsistency with the Commission’s precedents.  In any event, this limited ruling provides no basis for this Cakeshop or other entities covered by anti-discrimination laws to refuse goods and services in the name of free speech or religion.

The Court was mindful of how far adrift we could go if every individual could apply his or her religious beliefs to every commercial transaction.  The Court contrasted permission for a clergy person to refuse to marry a couple as an exercise of religious belief, on the one hand, with the unacceptable “community-wide stigma” that would befall gay people if there was a general constitutional right to refuse to provide goods and services.

Looking forward from here, the majority of the Court – those in the majority as well as Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor – stood on the side of “civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations.”  In applying those laws, neither a person’s religion nor their sexual orientation should affect the administration of justice.  As the Court stated in its penultimate paragraph, “disputes 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.”

The decision may generate mixed feelings in our community.  After all, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the couple in this case, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, were in fact turned away because of who they are. Our anti-discrimination protections remain vitally important, and we seek explicit protections for LGBTQ people throughout the country.

We urge the LGBTQ community and others to remain confident in going about their business, working, attending school, marrying, and raising their children. We believe the Constitution still requires as much.