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Civil Rights Commission Violated Baker’s First Amendment Right to Freedom of Religion

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A state commission that ordered a baker to prepare wedding cakes for gay couples violated the baker’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

The government must not base laws, regulations or decisions on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint, the Court explained. In baker Jack Phillips’ case, the Court noted, a commissioner disparaged Phillips’ religious objections as “despicable” and compared his views to religious defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. That condemnation contrasted to the way the agency upheld other bakers’ refusal to prepare cakes with language and images those bakers deemed derogatory and discriminatory. The agency thus preferred those bakers’ viewpoints over Phillips’ views, the Court concluded. Such viewpoint-based discrimination violates the First Amendment.

Because the Supreme Court focused on the way this particular agency handed specific cases, the opinion does not mean businesses in general have a right to refuse to serve gay couples. In fact, Supreme Court Justice Kagan in a concurring opinion said the commission could have found that Phillips’ refusal to provide cakes to gay couples violated his customers’ right to equal protection. But because the commission expressed hostility to Phillips’ views, Justice Kagan said, the commission abridged his right to freedom of religion.

The court’s opinion is available here.

Jim Lake is a partner in the Tampa office of Thomas & LoCicero.  His practice focuses on media law, intellectual property, and business litigation.  He represents clients in state and federal courts and before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, and he frequently renders advice on newsgathering, defamation, trademark and copyright matters.