Supreme Court Fails to Affirm LGBT Equality Rights

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June 4, 2018

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the religious right a limited, fact-specific victory, ruling that the Colorado civil rights agency violated the religious rights of a Denver baker who refused to sell a same-sex couple a wedding cake.

The Court ruling was limited, however, finding the state agency that rejected the baker’s religion and free speech claims had been improperly biased against him.

Lambda Legal filed an influential amicus brief in the case, documenting the extensiveness and severity of the discrimination LGBT people already face, even before this invitation to religiously-based refusals of service.

Lambda Legal CEO Rachel B. Tiven released the following statement:

The Court today has offered dangerous encouragement to those who would deny civil rights to LGBT people and people living with HIV.  Religious freedom under our Constitution has always meant the right to believe whatever you wish but not to act on your beliefs in ways that harm others. The Court today alarmingly fails to heed that distinction. Lambda Legal will continue to fight the establishment of evangelical Christianity as the official government religion. We will fiercely resist the coming effort that will seek to turn this ruling into a broad license to discriminate.

This is a deeply disappointing day in American jurisprudence. Today’s decision should have been a firm, direct affirmance of longstanding equality law.  Instead, the Supreme Court has become an accomplice in the right’s strategy to hollow out one of its finest achievements, the right to equal marriage, and create what Justice Ginsburg memorably termed ‘skim milk marriages.’ We will continue to fight in every arena and in every court until LGBT people and people living with HIV have full equality under the law in every aspect of our lives. We deserve no less.

Today’s ruling came in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the appeal of a 2012 case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against a Denver-based bakery on behalf of David Mullins and Charlie Craig, a gay couple who sought to purchase a cake for their wedding reception.

Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips declined to bake a cake for Mullins and Craig, citing his religious beliefs. The couple complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which ruled that Masterpiece Cakeshop had violated Colorado’s nondiscrimination statute. After losing multiple appeals in the Colorado state system, Phillips and his lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant review, which it did on June 26, 2017, after an extraordinarily long delay during which Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the high court.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case on Dec. 5, 2017.

Lambda Legal, the Family Equality Council and 11 other organizations submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission detailing the multiple everyday experiences of hundreds of LGBT individuals, same-sex couples and their families who have faced discrimination.

The brief marshaled a broad range of examples drawn from Lambda Legal cases and calls to the Lambda Legal Help Desk and Family Equality Council that demonstrate the breadth of the harm already being experienced daily by LGBT people and warning of how much worse that second-class status LGBT people experience could become if such discrimination were immunized from remedy through religious or free speech exemptions like the ones the Court granted in this case.

The other organizations joining Lambda Legal and the Family Equality Council on the amicus brief were: American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO; Equality California; Equality Federation; The LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York; Mazzoni Center; National Center for Transgender Equality; National Education Association; PFLAG National; PROMO; The Trevor Project; and, Whitman-Walker Health.