ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing both his religious beliefs and his right of free speech. The decision was based on the narrowest of grounds and left unresolved whether business owners have a free speech right to refuse services for a same-sex wedding. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The case before the court began when a same-sex couple in Colorado filed a complaint with the state Civil Rights Commission after baker Jack Phillips told them he did not design custom cakes for gay couples. The state Civil Rights Commission ruled that Phillips had violated the public accommodations law barring discrimination based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Phillips took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where last December he had this to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JACK PHILLIPS: It's hard to believe that the government is forcing me to choose between providing for my family and violating my relationship with God.
TOTENBERG: The case seemed to set up a direct clash between Phillips' view and the enforcement of Colorado's public accommodations law. Instead, today Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a seven-justice court majority, threaded the needle far more narrowly. He said that the Civil Rights Commission's consideration of Phillips' case was compromised by one of the seven commissioners' comments at a public hearing on the case, comments that Kennedy said disparaged Phillips' faith as despicable and compared Phillips' invocation of his sincerely held beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.
Moreover, Kennedy noted, in three other cases, the commission had sided with bakers who had refused to put messages on cakes condemning gay marriage as sinful. At the December argument, Kennedy seemed to telegraph today's decision when addressing the state's lawyer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANTHONY KENNEDY: Tolerance is essential in a free society. And it seems to me that the state and its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips' religious beliefs.
TOTENBERG: Kennedy reiterated that sentiment in today's ruling, declaring that these disputes must be resolved with respect for religious beliefs and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market. Even though the court majority sided with the baker, the nuts and bolts of today's decision was not a roaring defense of a business owner's right to discriminate in the name of religion. Instead, as Washington University law professor Elizabeth Sepper put it...
ELIZABETH SEPPER: The decision from the court is a punt, but it could have been dynamite instead of a dud.
TOTENBERG: Yale Law professor Bill Eskridge...
BILL ESKRIDGE: I think it was a draw which goes slightly in favor of religious freedom.
TOTENBERG: Throughout the opinion, Kennedy seemed to be balancing the ledger, trying not to disturb public accommodation laws and reiterating that gay people may, quote, "not be treated as outcasts." While a member of the clergy clearly cannot be forced to conduct a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple in violation of his religious views, Kennedy said, Colorado can protect gay persons just as it can protect other classes of individuals.
TOM BERG: It's clearly a toe in the water.
TOTENBERG: Professor Tom Berg of St. Thomas law school in Minnesota.
BERG: This is the court's first tangle with this issue. They clearly wanted to proceed slowly.
TOTENBERG: But as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh observes, there's much that today's decision does not tell us.
EUGENE VOLOKH: What happens with bakers, florists, photographers, videographers, calligraphers and - where the government says, look; we don't much care about your religiosity; we just think you have to provide these services for same-sex weddings?
TOTENBERG: Notwithstanding this assessment across the academic ideological spectrum, conservative groups were trumpeting their victory today. Here's David Cortman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom.
DAVID CORTMAN: We think the case was a significant win for religious freedom.
TOTENBERG: If so, what's down the road not just in cases where no hostility is expressed but also in the travel ban case currently before the Supreme Court in which a great deal of hostility to Muslims was expressed by President Trump both before and after he was elected? Yale Law professor Robert Post...
ROBERT POST: I am looking forward to the question of whether the court applies the same sort of reasoning to the Muslim ban case - that is to say, whether statements which are discriminatory in their purpose infect the whole record of decision-making.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.