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Masterpiece Cakeshop case deepens divides as many misunderstand its meaning 

Queer & There

On Monday, June 4, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case in which a Colorado baker refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

While LGBTQ people and our allies obviously hoped for a different outcome, those on the other side of the issue have their own reasons to be disappointed, and we should take heart in that. There are real-world implications of this decision, of course, but not the ones we were most afraid of.

On both sides, many are ignoring a key fact of the Supreme Court decision: It didn’t solve the ongoing debate of First Amendment rights versus anti-discrimination laws, but addressed the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop and baker Jack Phillips versus the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Specifically. No legal precedent has been set here that would allow businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs.
The 59-page opinion of the court, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, focuses on the particulars of this case alone. It even reaffirms the value and importance of anti-discrimination protections.

So the court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop solely because the Colorado Civil Rights Commission allegedly did not conduct its investigation with the neutrality required by a governmental body, and apparently showed bias against Phillips’ religious beliefs. Nowhere does the ruling assert that Phillips was initially in the right. That is a very important distinction.

On June 4, the American Civil Liberties Union held a media teleconference to discuss the decision. James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, confirmed that this wasn’t a total win for the religious right. “On the big issue the bakery was pushing in this case — getting a constitutionally based license to discriminate — they did not succeed,” Esseks said, “and all of the signs from the court, the language about that issue, suggest that, in fact, the court will not adopt and will not embrace that kind of a rule.”

A danger greater than the decision itself is the reaction to the decision, which is already causing a number of issues.
For one, misinformation can spread through the best of intentions, like sharing articles on Facebook that others don’t read past the headline. Many religious folks now feel free to discriminate, knowing only that Masterpiece Cakeshop won the case without taking the time to fully understand why, or to understand that they are not suddenly exempt from anti-discrimination laws.

On the other side, many LGBTQ people are now terrified that our civil rights protections have been taken away — protections we have enjoyed in Colorado since 2008. We must understand as a community that, legally, those protections remain unchanged.

Culturally? Yes, we have a right to be worried. There are other consequences of the decision that may not be so black-and-white, or so expected.
For Coloradans, this decision means the impartiality of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission has been called into question. Earlier this year, Colorado legislators played tug-of-war over the commission, with Republicans claiming it was unbalanced and Democrats fighting any changes. While a compromise was reached in the twilight hours of the 2018 legislative session, it did not fully satisfy Republican wishes. Now, Republicans have ammunition against the commission, given to them by the U.S. Supreme Court itself. The people we elect this year could decide the fate or change the composition of the Civil Rights Commission in this state.

Nationally, this ruling has fed into arguments that Christians face discrimination in America, fueling the debate that drove the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in the first place. A Tennessee hardware store owner (who came under fire for his “no gays allowed” sign in 2015, and recently replaced it with one reasserting his First Amendment rights) told WBIR, an NBC news affiliate: “Christianity is under attack. This is a great win, don’t get me wrong, but this is not the end, this is just the beginning.”
Civil rights abuses committed in the name of religion will continue, yes, but they will continue to face pushback, too. It’s just up to us to continue pushing, turn our fear into action, and keep an eye on similar cases in lower courts.

Someday, one of these cases might force the Supreme Court to make the decision it did not make here. Until then, let’s not sow immobilizing fear and resentment, but find hope in the language of the decision, and the hateful views it refused to validate.

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