Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

Status: Closed
Colorado Court of Appeals, Supreme Court of the United States

Lambda Legal filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a gay couple, urging the Colorado appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm that the owner of a bakery violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law when he refused to sell a wedding cake to Charlie and Dave because he claimed it was against his religion to help same-sex couples celebrate their marriages. Our briefs documented the widespread, harmful nature of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in Colorado and nationwide. 

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Charlie and Dave requested a cake for the celebration of their wedding from Jack Phillips and his bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop.  Phillips specializes in baking and decorating wedding cakes but refused to serve Charlie and Dave the same way he serves others based on his religious objection to same-sex couples marrying. Phillips also claims that decorating wedding cakes involves artistic expression that should exempt bakers from nondiscrimination laws.

After Phillips refused to even discuss the sort of cake they might wish to buy, Charlie and Dave filed a discrimination complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  Thereafter, the ACLU of Colorado represented them in court, arguing that sexual orientation discrimination by a business and its proprietor violates the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act regardless of its motivation or use of creative designs.

Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Colorado Court of Appeals supporting Charlie and Dave by discussing past precedents in which courts rejected similar demands for religious exemptions from laws barring discrimination based on race, sex or marital status. The brief also surveyed the history and continuing problem of antigay discrimination in Colorado. We emphasized that Jack Phillips’ policy of telling same-sex couples essentially that “we don’t serve your kind here” is discrimination of an all-too-familiar kind.  It violates Colorado law regardless of Phillips’ religious or other personal motivations.

In August 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of Charlie and Dave, rejecting both the religious exemption argument and the free speech defense. The antigay religious-legal organization representing Phillips asked the Colorado Supreme Court to review that decision.  The request was denied.  Thereafter, they asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant review.  The Supreme Court delayed a decision on whether to take the case until after Neil Gorsuch was confirmed, after which it agreed to take it.

Lambda Legal submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court together with Family Equality Council based on our review of more than 1,000 requests for assistance concerning discrimination by public accommodations.  Our brief documented the pervasive and harmful nature of anti-LGBT discrimination with and without religious motivations.  Joined by 11 other organizations, we urged the Court to affirm the Colorado Court of Appeals decision and reject the use of religion to excuse violation of Colorado’s civil rights law.

The U.S. Supreme Court held oral argument on December 5, 2017.  A decision was released on June 4, 2018, siding with the baker based on facts specific to the Colorado Commission’s handling of the case, not on Jack Phillips’ claims of speech and religious rights to violate the law. While deciding the case in his favor on different grounds, the Court expressly rejected Phillips’ demand for a broad religious license for businesses to discriminate. In so doing, the Court cited its unanimous 1968 decision rejecting religion as a defense for racial discrimination by white owners of a chain of barbeque restaurants against black would-be guests based on the owners’ religious belief in racial segregation.