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This Fall, the U.S. Supreme Court Will Decide Whether to Grant or Deny New Freedoms to Businesses to Discriminate Against Gays and Lesbians (And Possibly Others)

The case involves the Christian owner of a Colorado bakery who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. Colorado is one of the states whose laws protect gay couples, and the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, was charged with violating it.

In 2012, he did not agree to make a wedding cake for Charles Craig and David Mullins, who had planned to marry in Massachusetts but then have a reception in their home state of Colorado. They lodged a complaint with the Colorado Civil Commission. An administrative law judge at the Commission ruled in favor of Messrs. Craig and Mullins. The Commission upheld the administrative law judge’s decision ruling that Phillips’ refusal to make the wedding cake violated the provision in the state’s anti-discrimination law that says businesses open to the public may not deny service to customers based on their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

Phillips filed an appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s decision, and you can access that decision here: http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/16-111-op-bel-colo-app.pdf/
Phillips appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing he deserved a religious exemption based on the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.

Lawyers for the state commission and the American Civil Liberties Union urged the court to turn down the appeal in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. They said it could open a “gaping hole” in civil rights laws if business owners could cite their religious beliefs as a valid basis for denying service to certain customers.
Phillips’ application to the Supreme Court of the United States, to hear his case, has been pending since January 2017. It takes the votes of only 4 Supreme Court justices to agree to hear the case, and on the last day before the summer recess, the justices announced they would hear the issue during the fall.

The way the Supreme Court rules on this issue will determine whether business owners all over the United States are allowed to cite their religious views as a reason for refusing to serve gay and lesbian couples.
It could have even broader implications, opening a religious exemption to civil rights laws that could allow discrimination against other groups.

Presently, no federal law requires businesses to serve all customers without regard to their sexual orientation, but 21 states have “public accommodations” laws that prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians.
States with such anti-discrimination laws are mostly in the West, East Coast and upper Midwest. No state in the South or on the Great Plains has such a law.

New York State’s public accommodation laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, race, color, gender, sex, ancestry, national origin, religion, creed, and marital status. The situation that arose in Colorado would very likely, not have arisen in New York state.

Clearly, this legal issue is no piece of cake outside the West, East Coast, and Upper Midwest!

Stay tuned for further developments on this issue.