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Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 2018

MASTERPIECE CAKESHOP, LTD., ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
COLORADO CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION, ET AL.

          Argued December 5, 2017

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF COLORADO

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., is a Colorado bakery owned and operated by Jack Phillips, an expert baker and devout Christian. In 2012 he told a same-sex couple that he would not create a cake for their wedding celebration because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriages-marriages that Colorado did not then recognize-but that he would sell them other baked goods, e.g., birthday cakes. The couple filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (Commission) pursuant to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), which prohibits, as relevant here, discrimination based on sexual orientation in a "place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services ... to the public." Under CADA's administrative review system, the Colorado Civil Rights Division first found probable cause for a violation and referred the case to the Commission. The Commission then referred the case for a formal hearing before a state Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who ruled in the couple's favor. In so doing, the ALJ rejected Phillips' First Amendment claims: that requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed and would violate his right to the free exercise of religion. Both the Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed.

         Held:

The Commission's actions in this case violated the Free Exercise Clause. Pp. 9-18.
(a) The laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect gay persons and gay couples in the exercise of their civil rights, but religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression. See Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___, ___. While it is unexceptional that Colorado law can protect gay persons in acquiring products and services on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public, the law must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. To Phillips, his claim that using his artistic skills to make an expressive statement, a wedding endorsement in his own voice and of his own creation, has a significant First Amendment speech component and implicates his deep and sincere religious beliefs. His dilemma was understandable in 2012, which was before Colorado recognized the validity of gay marriages performed in the State and before this Court issued United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744, or Obergefell. Given the State's position at the time, there is some force to Phillips' argument that he was not unreasonable in deeming his decision lawful. State law at the time also afforded storekeepers some latitude to decline to create specific messages they considered offensive. Indeed, while the instant enforcement proceedings were pending, the State Civil Rights Division concluded in at least three cases that a baker acted lawfully in declining to create cakes with decorations that demeaned gay persons or gay marriages. Phillips too was entitled to a neutral and respectful consideration of his claims in all the circumstances of the case. Pp. 9-12.
(b) That consideration was compromised, however, by the Commission's treatment of Phillips' case, which showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection. As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission's formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips' faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. No commissioners objected to the comments. Nor were they mentioned in the later state-court ruling or disavowed in the briefs filed here. The comments thus cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission's adjudication of Phillips' case.
Another indication of hostility is the different treatment of Phillips' case and the cases of other bakers with objections to anti-gay messages who prevailed before the Commission. The Commission ruled against Phillips in part on the theory that any message on the requested wedding cake would be attributed to the customer, not to the baker. Yet the Division did not address this point in any of the cases involving requests for cakes depicting anti-gay marriage symbolism. The Division also considered that each bakery was willing to sell other products to the prospective customers, but the Commission found Phillips' willingness to do the same irrelevant. The State Court of Appeals' brief discussion of this disparity of treatment does not answer Phillips' concern that the State's practice was to disfavor the religious basis of his objection. Pp. 12-16.
(c) For these reasons, the Commission's treatment of Phillips' case violated the State's duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint. The government, consistent with the Constitution's guarantee of free exercise, cannot impose regulations that are hostile to the religious beliefs of affected citizens and cannot act in a manner that passes judgment upon or presupposes the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices. Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520. Factors relevant to the assessment of governmental neutrality include "the historical background of the decision under challenge, the specific series of events leading to the enactment or official policy in question, and the legislative or administrative history, including contemporaneous statements made by members of the decisionmaking body." Id., at 540. In view of these factors, the record here demonstrates that the Commission's consideration of Phillips' case was neither tolerant nor respectful of his religious beliefs. The Commission gave "every appearance, " id., at 545, of adjudicating his religious objection based on a negative normative "evaluation of the particular justification" for his objection and the religious grounds for it, id., at 537, but government has no role in expressing or even suggesting whether the religious ground for Phillips' conscience-based objection is legitimate or illegitimate. The inference here is thus that Phillips' religious objection was not considered with the neutrality required by the Free Exercise Clause. The State's interest could have been weighed against Phillips' sincere religious objections in a way consistent with the requisite religious neutrality that must be strictly observed. But the official expressions of hostility to religion in some of the commissioners' comments were inconsistent with that requirement, and the Commission's disparate consideration of Phillips' case compared to the cases of the other bakers suggests the same. Pp. 16-18.

370 P.3d 272, reversed.

          OPINION

          Kennedy, Justice.

         In 2012 a same-sex couple visited Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Colorado, to make inquiries about ordering a cake for their wedding reception. The shop's owner told the couple that he would not create a cake for their wedding because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriages-marriages the State of Colorado itself did not recognize at that time. The couple filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.

         The Commission determined that the shop's actions violated the Act and ruled in the couple's favor. The Colorado state courts affirmed the ruling and its enforcement order, and this Court now must decide whether the Commission's order violated the Constitution.

         The case presents difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles. The first is the authority of a State and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services. The second is the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.

         The freedoms asserted here are both the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. The free speech aspect of this case is difficult, for few persons who have seen a beautiful wedding cake might have thought of its creation as an exercise of protected speech. This is an instructive example, however, of the proposition that the application of constitutional freedoms in new contexts can deepen our understanding of their meaning.

         One of the difficulties in this case is that the parties disagree as to the extent of the baker's refusal to provide service. If a baker refused to design a special cake with words or images celebrating the marriage-for instance, a cake showing words with religious meaning-that might be different from a refusal to sell any cake at all. In defining whether a baker's creation can be protected, these details might make a difference.

         The same difficulties arise in determining whether a baker has a valid free exercise claim. A baker's refusal to attend the wedding to ensure that the cake is cut the right way, or a refusal to put certain religious words or decorations on the cake, or even a refusal to sell a cake that has been baked for the public generally but includes certain religious words or symbols on it are just three examples of possibilities that seem all but endless.

         Whatever the confluence of speech and free exercise principles might be in some cases, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission's consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State's obligation of religious neutrality. The reason and motive for the baker's refusal were based on his sincere religious beliefs and convictions. The 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. 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.

         I

         A

         Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., is a bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. The shop offers a variety of baked goods, ranging from everyday cookies and brownies to elaborate custom-designed cakes for birthday parties, weddings, and other events.

         Jack Phillips is an expert baker who has owned and operated the shop for 24 years. Phillips is a devout Christian. He has explained that his "main goal in life is to be obedient to" Jesus Christ and Christ's "teachings in all aspects of his life." App. 148. And he seeks to "honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop." Ibid. One of Phillips' religious beliefs is that "God's intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman." Id., at 149. To Phillips, creating a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding would be equivalent to participating in a celebration that is contrary to his own most deeply held beliefs.

         Phillips met Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins when they entered his shop in the summer of 2012. Craig and Mullins were planning to marry. At that time, Colorado did not recognize same-sex marriages, so the couple planned to wed legally in Massachusetts and afterwards to host a reception for their family and friends in Denver. To prepare for their celebration, Craig and Mullins visited the shop and told Phillips that they were interested in ordering a cake for "our wedding." Id., at 152 (emphasis deleted). They did not mention the design of the cake they envisioned.

         Phillips informed the couple that he does not "create" wedding cakes for same-sex weddings. Ibid. He explained, "I'll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don't make cakes for same sex weddings." Ibid. The couple left the shop without further discussion.

         The following day, Craig's mother, who had accompanied the couple to the cakeshop and been present for their interaction with Phillips, telephoned to ask Phillips why he had declined to serve her son. Phillips explained that he does not create wedding cakes for same-sex weddings because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage, and also because Colorado (at that time) did not recognize same-sex marriages. Id., at 153. He later explained his belief that "to create a wedding cake for an event that celebrates something that directly goes against the teachings of the Bible, would have been a personal endorsement and participation in the ceremony and relationship that they were entering into." Ibid, (emphasis deleted).

         B

         For most of its history, Colorado has prohibited discrimination in places of public accommodation. In 1885, less than a decade after Colorado achieved statehood, the General Assembly passed "An Act to Protect All Citizens in Their Civil Rights, " which guaranteed "full and equal enjoyment" of certain public facilities to "all citizens, " "regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude." 1885 Colo. Sess. Laws pp. 132-133. A decade later, the General Assembly expanded the requirement to apply to "all other places of public accommodation." 1895 Colo. Sess. Laws ch. 61, p. 139.

         Today, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) carries forward the state's tradition of prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation. Amended in 2007 and 2008 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as other protected characteristics, CADA in relevant part provides as follows:

"It is a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from, or deny to an individual or a group, because of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry, the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation." Colo. Rev. Stat. §24-34-601(2)(a) (2017).

         The Act defines "public accommodation" broadly to include any "place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services ... to the public, " but excludes "a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place that is principally used for religious purposes." §24-34-601(1). CADA establishes an administrative system for the resolution of discrimination claims. Complaints of discrimination in violation of CADA are addressed in the first instance by the Colorado Civil Rights Division. The Division investigates each claim; and if it finds probable cause that CADA has been violated, it will refer the matter to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Commission, in turn, decides whether to initiate a formal hearing before a state Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who will hear evidence and argument before issuing a written decision. See §§24-34-306, 24-4-105(14). The decision of the ALJ may be appealed to the full Commission, a seven-member appointed body. The Commission holds a public hearing and deliberative session before voting on the case. If the Commission determines that the evidence proves a CADA violation, it may impose remedial measures as provided by statute. See §24-34-306(9). Available remedies include, among other things, orders to cease-and-desist a discriminatory policy, to file regular compliance reports with the Commission, and "to take affirmative action, including the posting of notices setting forth the substantive rights of the public." §24-34-605. Colorado law does not permit the Commission to assess money damages or fines. §§24-34-306(9), 24-34-605.

         C

         Craig and Mullins filed a discrimination complaint against Masterpiece Cakeshop and Phillips in August 2012, shortly after the couple's visit to the shop. App. 31. The complaint alleged that Craig and Mullins had been denied "full and equal service" at the bakery because of their sexual orientation, id., at 35, 48, and that it was Phillips' "standard business practice" not to provide cakes for same-sex weddings, id., at 43.

         The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation. The investigator found that "on multiple occasions, " Phillips "turned away potential customers on the basis of their sexual orientation, stating that he could not create a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony or reception" because his religious beliefs prohibited it and because the potential customers "were doing something illegal" at that time. Id., at 76. The investigation found that Phillips had declined to sell custom wedding cakes to about six other same-sex couples on this basis. Id., at 72. The investigator also recounted that, according to affidavits submitted by Craig and Mullins, Phillips' shop had refused to sell cupcakes to a lesbian couple for their commitment celebration because the shop "had a policy of not selling baked goods to same-sex couples for this type of event." Id., at 73. Based on these findings, the Division found probable cause that Phillips violated CADA and referred the case to the Civil Rights Commission. Id., at 69.

         The Commission found it proper to conduct a formal hearing, and it sent the case to a State ALJ. Finding no dispute as to material facts, the ALJ entertained cross-motions for summary judgment and ruled in the couple's favor. The ALJ first rejected Phillips' argument that declining to make or create a wedding cake for Craig and Mullins did not violate Colorado law. It was undisputed that the shop is subject to state public accommodations laws. And the ALJ determined that Phillips' actions constituted prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, not simply opposition to same-sex marriage as Phillips contended. App. to Pet. for Cert. 68a-72a.

         Phillips raised two constitutional claims before the ALJ. He first asserted that applying CADA in a way that would require him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his First Amendment right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed. The ALJ rejected the contention that preparing a wedding cake is a form of protected speech and did not agree that creating Craig and Mullins' cake would force Phillips to adhere to "an ideological point of view." Id., at 75a. Applying CADA to the facts at hand, in the ALJ's view, did not interfere with Phillips' freedom of speech.

         Phillips also contended that requiring him to create cakes for same-sex weddings would violate his right to the free exercise of religion, also protected by the First Amendment. Citing this Court's precedent in Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), the ALJ determined that CADA is a "valid and neutral law of general applicability" and therefore that applying it to Phillips in this case did not violate the Free Exercise Clause. Id., at 879; App. to Pet. for Cert. 82a-83a. The ALJ thus ruled against Phillips and the cakeshop and in favor of Craig and Mullins on both constitutional claims.

         The Commission affirmed the ALJ's decision in full. Id., at 57a. The Commission ordered Phillips to "cease and desist from discriminating against . . . same-sex couples by refusing to sell them wedding cakes or any product [they] would sell to heterosexual couples." Ibid. It also ordered additional remedial measures, including "comprehensive staff training on the Public Accommodations section" of CADA "and changes to any and all company policies to comply with . . . this Order." Id., at 58a. The Commission additionally required Phillips to prepare "quarterly compliance reports" for a period of two years documenting "the number of patrons denied service" and why, along with "a statement describing the remedial actions taken." Ibid.

         Phillips appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Commission's legal determinations and remedial order. The court rejected the argument that the "Commission's order unconstitutionally compels" Phillips and the shop "to convey a celebratory message about same sex marriage." Craig v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc., 370 P.3d 272, 283 (2015). The court also rejected the argument that the Commission's order violated the Free Exercise Clause. Relying on this Court's precedent in Smith, supra, at 879, the court stated that the Free Exercise Clause "does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability" on the ground that following the law would interfere with religious practice or belief. 370 P.3d, at 289. The court concluded that requiring Phillips to comply with the statute did not violate his free exercise rights. The Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

         Phillips sought review here, and this Court granted certiorari. 582 U.S. ___ (2017). He now renews his claims under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.

         II

         A

         Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression. As this Court observed in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), "[t]he First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths." Id., at ___ (slip op., at 27). Nevertheless, while those religious and philosophical objections are protected, it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law. See Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402, n. 5 (1968) (per curiam); see also Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc., 515 U.S. 557, 572 (1995) ("Provisions like these are well within the State's usual power to enact when a legislature has reason to believe that a given group is the target of discrimination, and they do not, as a general matter, violate the First or Fourteenth Amendments").

         When it comes to weddings, it can be assumed that a member of the clergy who objects to gay marriage on moral and religious grounds could not be compelled to perform the ceremony without denial of his or her right to the free exercise of religion. This refusal would be well understood in our constitutional order as an exercise of religion, an exercise that gay persons could recognize and accept without serious diminishment to their own dignity and worth. Yet if that exception were not confined, then a long list of persons who provide goods and services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations.

         It is unexceptional that Colorado law can protect gay persons, just as it can protect other classes of individuals, in acquiring whatever products and services they choose on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public. And there are no doubt innumerable goods and services that no one could argue implicate the First Amendment. Petitioners conceded, moreover, that if a baker refused to sell any goods or any cakes for gay weddings, that would be a different matter and the State would have a strong case under this Court's precedents that this would be a denial of goods and services that went beyond any protected rights of a baker who offers goods and services to the general public and is subject to a neutrally applied and generally applicable public accommodations law. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 4-7, 10.

         Phillips claims, however, that a narrower issue is presented. He argues that he had to use his artistic skills to make an expressive statement, a wedding endorsement in his own voice and of his own creation. As Phillips would see the case, this contention has a significant First Amendment speech component and implicates his deep and sincere religious beliefs. In this context the baker likely found it difficult to find a line where the customers' rights to goods and services became a demand for him to ...


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