A short explanation of Masterpiece cake

Aidan Chappuis, Reporter

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You might have heard people talking about the recent Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a highly anticipated gay rights decision. You might specifically have overheard some We the People students discussing it the same day while mentioning various arcane legal issues.

The basic issue in the case was whether an evangelical baker could refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. The baker refused to serve a couple in Colorado in 2012, claiming that his religion prohibited it. He did not refuse to sell them things other than a wedding cake, but would only provide them a premade cake. When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled against him, he sued.

The baker argued that forcing him to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding violated his right to free speech. Since the Court has held that the government cannot force someone to express an idea they disagree with, in a case that said New Hampshire could not make someone put “live free or die” on their license plate, he claimed they could not make him create “art” (i.e. his cakes) for a same-sex wedding. He also said that making him do so would violate his religion.

The Court threw out the free-speech argument, saying that people would not consider someone baking a cake an endorsement of a wedding. They then dodged the main issue and ruled extremely narrowly. Instead of deciding the important issue, whether someone could claim a religious freedom exemption to antidiscrimination law, the 7-2 majority claimed that a few statements by commissioners showed they were biased against the baker and that they violated his right to free exercise of religion. This is a pretty flimsy excuse, designed to avoid deciding anything, as the statements were not particularly notable. One arguably just summarized the law at the time, “that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain”, while the most offensive thing was calling the baker’s argument “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to … hurt others”, and saying that similar arguments were used to justify slavery and the Holocaust. The Court’s other argument, that the commission was fine with someone refusing to make a cake with anti-gay messages, also does not hold up. There they were refusing to make a cake based on the actual message on the cake, not who the customer was, which they legally could do. The baker in Masterpiece refused to sell them any wedding cake, even one he would sell to a straight couple.

The Court likely avoided deciding the main issue because of how unclear the facts of the case are. The Supreme Court cannot rule on hypotheticals, and so needs an actual case to clarify points of legal doctrine. As the legal proverb “bad facts make bad law” says, courts prefer to decide important issues in cases where everyone agrees on what happened and what issues are involved, with nothing to muddy the waters. In this case, the couple and the baker did not agree on whether the baker refused to provide a “wedding cake” or any cake at all. The whole thing also happened before Obergefell v Hodges in 2015, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, and before it was even legal in Colorado, and the baker claimed he thought what he did was legal. The court seems to have therefore taken the first excuse it could find to wait for a better case.

Because of the narrow decision, the case will have very few effects. It is likely to make government officials more careful in statements regarding religion, but do little else. The court hinted that normally, they would rule against the baker, citing the Piggie Park case, which held that someone could not claim religious freedom to refuse to serve African-Americans, and Employment Division v Smith, which held that religious freedom does not exempt someone from “neutral and generally applicable” laws.