What Does the Masterpiece Cakeshop Ruling Mean for Immigrant Communities?
THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Josh Rosenthal, NILC staff attorney
JUNE 5, 2018
In a narrow ruling announced yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s citation of a Denver-area bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop, for having violated Colorado’s public accommodations law by refusing to create a cake for the wedding of a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court based its reversal of the state commission’s decision on a finding that the commission had shown a bias against the bakery owner’s religious beliefs.
Public accommodations laws provide important protections for LGBT and non-LGBT immigrants
Public accommodations laws are intended to ensure that everyone can participate in the U.S. society and economy, regardless of their membership in a protected group. As the hashtag says, public accommodations laws help ensure that businesses are #OpenToAll. At the federal level, Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000a) prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin by restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and places of entertainment. The Americans with Disabilities Act further provides that people with disabilities have access to a wider range of public accommodations.
In addition to these federal protections, 45 states and the District of Columbia have their own public accommodations laws. These laws provide for equal access to a wider range of businesses and may include protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, age, or other personal characteristics. These protections are inconsistent, however: Only 22 states prohibit sexual orientation–based discrimination in public accommodations, and only 19 prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
In its Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion, the Supreme Court recognizes the importance of public accommodations laws. The Court cites the long “history … of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations,” which exist to prevent “community-wide stigma” and ensure that members of protected groups can “acquir[e] whatever products and services they choose on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public.”
Public accommodations laws thus provide essential protections for the approximately one million immigrants who identify as LGBTQ (including an estimated 10 percent of DACA recipients), as well as for other immigrants who may face bias on the basis of their race, skin color, religious beliefs, or ethnicity.
Religious beliefs are not a license to deny goods or services to a member of a protected class
The Court reaffirmed the longstanding principle that “[religious and philosophical] objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.” For example, in Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U. S. 400, 402, n. 5 (1968) (per curiam), the Court rejected the idea that the owner of a barbecue restaurant could avoid complying with public accommodations law because he held a religious objection to racial integration. The Court made clear that similar religious beliefs cannot be used to justify discrimination on other bases either, including against gays and lesbians. Nor should religious beliefs shield discrimination against trans or gender nonconforming individuals.
However, the Court did leave open the possibility that individuals may refuse to provide certain expressive services, notwithstanding public accommodations laws, if providing the good or service would require the individual to “exercise the right of his own personal expression for the [customer’s] message, a message he could not express in a way consistent with his religious beliefs.” Because the Court did not resolve this issue, it is not clear what kinds of goods and services, if any, would fit in this category. The question may be resolved by this case on remand to the Colorado court system or by other cases that are being presented to state and federal courts, including the Supreme Court.
Biased statements by officials are relevant to determining whether an apparently neutral decision is legitimate
The Supreme Court ultimately decided this case by finding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to provide the baker with “neutral and respectful consideration” of his religious beliefs. The Court pointed to statements by a commissioner that described the baker’s religious beliefs as “despicable” and other statements that the Court interpreted to be “inappropriate and dismissive comments showing lack of due consideration for [the owner’s] free exercise rights and the dilemma he faced.” The Court also noted that the commission apparently applied a different standard to the baker than it had to other bakers who refused to bake cakes with anti-gay messages.
Several commentators have noted similarities between the “official expressions of hostility” to religious beliefs in this case and the anti-Muslim comments made by President Trump in relation to his Muslim ban executive orders. It remains to be seen whether the Court will take Trump’s comments as seriously, while it considers the constitutionality of the administration’s Muslim ban in the Trump v. Hawaii case. However the Court rules, NILC is committed to fighting for #NoMuslimBanEver.