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Supreme Court sides with Colorado baker on same-sex wedding cake

Author: Joey Bunch - June 4, 2018 - Updated: June 5, 2018

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A Colorado ruling against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in Colorado was overturned Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices stopped short of a sweeping declaration about whether there’s a right to discriminate based on religious beliefs.

Justices voted 7-2 to overturn a ruling by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, was wrong to refuse to decorate a wedding for two men, Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

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Jack Phillips was at work at his Lakewood Masterpiece Cakeshop Monday morning when the Supreme Court ruling came down. (Photo by Marianne Goodland/Colorado Politics)

Phillips cited his religious beliefs in his refusal.

Colorado law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the commission concluded that Phillips’ refusal violated the law. The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the determination; the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

> RELATED: What Masterpiece ruling means for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling appeared to be an attempt to decide the case on narrow grounds — the process used by the Civil Rights Commission, which the majority found showed hostility to Phillips’ religious views, the ruling suggests.

“The Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality,” Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled for the Supreme Court majority.

> VIDEO: Watch a 9News timeline of the case.

“The reason and motive for the baker’s refusal were based on his sincere religious beliefs and convictions,” Kennedy added. “The (Supreme) Court’s precedents make clear that the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws. Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach.

“That requirement, however, was not met here,” Kennedy continued. “When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires. Given all these considerations, it is proper to hold that whatever the outcome of some future controversy involving facts similar to these, the Commission’s actions here violated the Free Exercise Clause; and its order must be set aside.”

> RELATED: Full text of Supreme Court’s ruling.

In this Dec. 5, 2017 file photo, Charlie Craig, left, and David Mullins touch foreheads after leaving the Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court is setting aside a Colorado court ruling against a baker who wouldn’t make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. But the court is not deciding the big issue in the case, whether a business can refuse to serve gay and lesbian people. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“Today’s decision means our fight against discrimination and unfair treatment will continue,” Craig and Mullins said in a statement Monday.

“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.”

Phillips was at work in his Lakewood shop Monday morning as the ruling came down. He declined to talk to reporters, as his phone rang incessantly.

“Jack serves all customers; he simply declines to express messages or celebrate events that violate his deeply held beliefs,” the Alliance Defending Freedom, which helped Phillips drive the case to the nation’s highest court, said in a statement.

“Creative professionals who serve all people should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment. Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society, yet the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage,” the ADF statement continued.

“The court was right to condemn that. Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a society like ours. This decision makes clear that the government must respect Jack’s beliefs about marriage.”

Phillips’ customers showed up ready to celebrate, some wearing the shop’s T-shirt.

“It’s a great day for cake,” quipped customer John Works.

One Colorado, the state’s largest gay-rights advocacy group, said it “strongly” supports freedom of religion as a fundamental American value, “but that freedom cannot be used to harm others or discriminate against others,” said executive director Daniel Ramos.

“Coloradans across our state – including LGBTQ Coloradans and their families – can take heart from today’s decision that no matter who you are, who you love or what you believe, you will still be protected in our state from discrimination in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations,” he stated.

> RELATED: Reaction to the ruling from Colorado leaders

Politicians quickly began jockeying for position around the ruling.

“While I’m disappointed that we didn’t see a clear decision in support of civil rights today, it’s important to recognize that this is a narrow holding, and our statewide protections against discrimination are still the law of the land,” House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, who sponsored the reauthorization of the Colorado Civil Rights Division against Republicans’ efforts to weaken it last session, said in a statement.

“Colorado has a long history of defending civil rights, and now more than ever we must stand firm and continue providing protections against discrimination,” she said.

State Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado,  “led the effort to reform” the commission, as the Senate Republicans’ press office characterized it Monday.

“Today, the United States Supreme Court found that our State’s Civil Rights Commission acted with hostility toward a citizen’s free exercise of religion,” Gardner stated. “In fact, the Court noted the unchallenged hostility toward religion by this group appointed by our Governor. The Court found that the very body charged with protecting the rights of our citizens acted with hostility toward those rights in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.”

Gay rights supporters from the beginning have called the argument that religious views can trump discrimination laws a vehicle for rampant abuse, while conservatives have said people of faith have rights, too.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the couple in its legal fight, said it was pleased the court did not endorse a broad religion-based exemption from anti-discrimination laws.

“The court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision based on concerns unique to the case but reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people.” said Louise Melling, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.

The case has divided the Colorado legislature, which in the 2018 session struggled to reauthorize the state’s Civil Rights Commission, and put Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who defended the decision, at odds with most of her party, one of the reasons her once-lauded run for governor never got traction until she was eliminated near the back of the pack at the state assembly in April.

In the end, the decision did not turn out to be partisan on the court. Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the majority. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor were the dissenting votes.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December. At the time, Kennedy was plainly bothered by comments by a commission member. The commissioner seemed “neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs,” Kennedy said in December.

Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in 1996, when the high court overturned Colorado’s Amendment 2 passed by voters in 1992 to allow employers to withhold protections against discrimination for gay employees.

That same sentiment suffused his opinion on Monday. “The commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion,” he wrote.

Colorado Politics’ Marianne Goodland and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

This story is developing; check back for updates.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.