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What Does the 'Masterpiece Cakeshop' Ruling Mean for Small Businesses?

Earlier today the Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated baker Jack Phillips' First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion when it found he discriminated against a same-sex couple who requested a cake for their wedding. Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to bake the couple a cake, and the commission ruled that he violated the state's anti-discrimination laws.

The Court overturned that decision, but stopped short of saying that wedding vendors and other business owners have a right to refuse service to same-sex couples. So what, exactly, was their reasoning? And where does that leave small businesses?

Application of Anti-Discrimination Laws

While the Court conceded that Colorado law could protect gay peoples' right to equal treatment and access to products and services -- including wedding services like cakes -- it held that the law "must applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion." But, based on the hearings in Phillips' case, that didn't happen:

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.

The Court, sympathetic to Phillips' religious opposition to same-sex marriage, declared those comments compromised the "neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled," and therefore "cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality" of his hearing. Because the state agency reviewing the case "showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection," the finding that Phillips discriminated against the couple was invalidated.

Religious Freedom and Denying Service

The Supreme Court was careful, however, to avoid any determination about whether religious objections could allow businesses to deny service to gay people in the future. Writing for the 7-2 majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy warned:

The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these 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.

Thus, the Court stopped short of saying that all small businesses have a right to refuse service to gay people or same-sex couples. So you may want to check your state laws and consult with an attorney before you deny service based on religious grounds.

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