Employers’ and Businesses’ Anti-Discrimination Obligations Remain Unchanged by Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision

    The Supreme Court’s highly-awaited decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop caseFN1—which pit anti-discrimination obligations against religious freedoms—has caused some companies to ask how the decision changes their obligations under anti-discrimination laws in the areas of employment and public accommodation. The answer is, the decision does not change employers’ obligations to adhere to federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

    In Masterpiece Cakeshop, a same-sex couple sued a Colorado bakery that refused to prepare and sell them a custom wedding cake, based on the baker’s religious belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Previously, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the “Commission”)—the state administrative board that conducts hearings on discriminatory practices and hears appeals of administrative law judge decisions—ruled in favor of the couple, and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed.FN2

    In its majority decision,FN3 the Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision because the Commission did not act neutrally, and instead demonstrated hostility toward the baker’s sincerely held religious beliefs, and treated the case differently than it had similar cases in the past.FN4 The Court acknowledged the narrowness of its ruling and stated that the larger issue of “when the free exercise of . . . religion must yield to an otherwise valid” anti-discrimination statute would be decided in the future. The Court also cautioned that such disputes “must be resolved with tolerance, without undue respect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

Practical Takeaway

    The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision cannot be read to allow companies to treat customers or employees differently because of their sexual orientation or because they belong to some other protected category. The decision instead focused on state and federal agencies, which the Court admonished must treat religious beliefs with respect.

Footnotes:

FN1:   Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm’n, No. 16-111, 2018 WL 2465172 (Jun. 4, 2018).

FN2:   The Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and the bakery sought and obtained review with the United States Supreme Court. See Masterpiece Cakeshop, 2018 WL 2465172, at *6.

FN3:   Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices (Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch, and Chief Justice Roberts) joined the majority opinion, Justice Thomas concurred in the decision, and two Justices (Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor) dissented.

FN4:   Among other things, the Commission described the baker’s religious beliefs as “despicable . . . rhetoric,” and compared the baker’s sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses to slavery and the Holocaust. The Supreme Court found that such “sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.” Masterpiece Cakeshop, 2018 WL 2465172, at *10.

 

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