Let’s Talk Cake

Okay, it may be a little cruel to talk cake on a Monday morning.  Statistics show that most people start diets on Monday.  It’s called the “fresh start effect,” because apparently on Mondays we are supposed to feel ready to conquer new challenges.

So let’s take this challenge: understanding whether last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of a wedding cake baker has any implications in school law.  The case is Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Com’n, Dkt. No. 16-111 (June 4, 2018).

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. is owned by Jack Phillips, a devout Christian, who in 2012 refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriages.  His stated goal in life is to be obedient to Christ’s teachings and honor God through his work.  He also believes that God’s intention was that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The couple filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (Commission) under the state’s anti-discrimination law that protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation in a place of business.

In proceedings before the state Commission, commissioners stated that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public or commercial domains and one commissioner suggested that Mr. Phillips could believe what he wants, but he cannot act on his religious beliefs if he wants to do business in Colorado.  Another stated, “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history…And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.”

Having lost at every level, Mr. Phillips ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  According to Mr. Phillips, requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed and would violate his right to the free exercise of religion.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Commission demonstrated open hostility toward the man’s religious beliefs.  It also failed to provide “neutral and respectful consideration” of his sincerely held religious beliefs throughout the state administrative process, thus, violating his First Amendment rights.

Issues that weighed in favor of Mr. Phillips:  (1) at the time, Colorado did not recognize same-sex marriage; and (2) the Commission had previously sided with other bakers who refused to bake cakes conveying disapproval of same-sex marriage, which showed the Commission based its decision against Mr. Phillips on his religious viewpoint.

While some commentators have deemed this ruling as a “narrow” one based on the specific facts presented, I think there are some takeaways relevant in the context of school administration.  This case presents two competing interests – the government’s interest in protecting against discrimination and the right of all persons to exercise fundamental First Amendment freedoms.  When those competing interests are at play, the Supreme Court offers this to consider:

The Free Exercise Clause bars even “subtle departures from neutrality” on matters of religion.  Here, that means the Commission was obliged under the Free Exercise Clause to proceed in a manner neutral toward and tolerant of Phillips' religious beliefs. The Constitution commits government itself to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion that proposals for state intervention stem from animosity to religion or distrust of its practices, all officials must pause to remember their own high duty to the Constitution and to the rights it secures.

This ruling does not endorse discrimination against same-sex couples.  Instead, the main point here is that the Constitution requires “neutral and respectful” consideration by the government of sincerely held religious beliefs.  This applies in the school context as well.


Tomorrow:  Handcuffing elementary students…a good idea?