What ‘Masterpiece’ Means: Key Interpretations and Analyses of Monday’s Decision

By Shane Stahl • June 5, 2018 • 3:33 pm

Following Monday’s ruling by the Supreme Court in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, several analysts have offered their interpretation of the high court’s decision.

In a  7-2 vote, the justices found in favor of the bakery, saying that the Commission violated the Free Expression Clause of the First Amendment in their initial decision. However, the ruling stopped short of providing a license to discriminate; Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, defended the principles of nondiscrimination, emphasizing that the court’s ruling was applicable only to this particular case.

Freedom For All Americans CEO, Masen Davis, said: “The message to take from today’s ruling is that nondiscrimination laws remain important and powerful tools to fight stigma and inequality.”

While many people, including many news outlets and social media commentators, initially read this as a terrible loss, analysts have stated that the decision is much narrower and more focused in scope than many realize, and is in reality not devastating to the movement for LGBTQ nondiscrimination. Here’s a collection of some of the most significant writing on the decision.

Putting the Ruling into Context:

James Esseks, Director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project:

“The decision recognizes that adopting a rule — as advocated by the bakery — that would allow businesses to turn gay people away carries a significant risk of harm.” Read the analysis.

NCLR (National Center for Lesbian Rights) Legal Director Shannon Minter:

“Today’s Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop is a narrow, fact-based decision that does not break any new constitutional ground or create any new exemptions to anti-discrimination laws. The Court reversed the state court decision only because it found that the record in this case indicated that the Colorado Commission’s deliberations were tainted by anti-religious hostility. Nothing in the Court’s decision would require or permit the Commission to have reached a different substantive result in protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination. Today’s decision leaves intact the longstanding principle that states can require businesses open to the public to serve everyone, even when some businesses believe that doing so violates their religious beliefs.” 

Jon Davidson, Expert LGBTQ Legal Analyst:

“Most importantly, the decision unequivocally reaffirms the Supreme Court’s 50-year old precedent that religious or philosophical objections to treating others equally ‘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.’” Read the analysis.

Art Leonard, New York Law School Professor:

“Interestingly, the Court’s opinion focused on free exercise of religion and evaded ruling on the other main argument advanced by Jack Phillips: that requiring him to bake the cake would be a form of compelled speech prohibited by the First Amendment freedom of speech clause.” Read the analysis.

Mark Joseph Stern for Slate Magazine:

“In the end, Masterpiece Cakeshop barely resolves anything and doesn’t even touch the free-speech claim at the center of the case. Instead, it punts that question, leaving lower courts (and American society) to continue fighting about how, exactly, Justice Anthony Kennedy should feel about it.” Read the analysis.

Scott Skinner-Thompson for Slate Magazine:

“But make no mistake, the court’s perception that the anti-discrimination law was not being applied neutrally in this instance does not in any way undermine LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws more broadly. Instead, as emphasized at multiple turns by the court, the religious beliefs of business owners do not give them a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people.” Read the analysis.

Looking to the Future of the LGBTQ Movement:

Even though the ruling was not sweeping and did not provide businesses outright permission to discriminate against LGBTQ people, this doesn’t change the fact that there  are still ample threats to LGBTQ equal treatment. It is vital that we stay wary and vigilant regarding any attempt to undermine or strip away LGBTQ rights. Several other pieces of analysis not only break down the ruling, but also warn of the dangers ahead on the horizon that may follow.

Lambda Legal CEO Rachel B. Tiven:

“The Court today has offered dangerous encouragement to those who would deny civil rights to LGBT people and people living with HIV. 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 Ginsberg memorably termed ‘skim milk marriages.’” Read the analysis.

Ari Ezra Waldman, Writing for Towleroad

“Craig and Dave were not denied service because they wanted their baker to write something on their cake. All they wanted was a cake. They were denied service because they are gay, period. The legal story should have ended there.” Read the analysis. 

Sarah Posner, Writing for The Nation

“Today, the Court did not foreclose LGBTQ people from suing under anti-discrimination laws. But it did open the door for ADF to use one of its favored tropes—that the government is hostile to religion—to continue to chip away at those protections. And there is really no telling how that will turn out.” Read the analysis.

The Pathway Forward

One thing is certain: We cannot let our opponents use this ruling as an attempt to further discriminate against LGBTQ people. We must keep pushing forward in order to make nondiscrimination protections a reality for all LGBTQ people nationwide. Freedom for All Americans CEO Masen Davis said yesterday, “We now need to double down and work harder and faster than ever before to advance comprehensive nondiscrimination protections at the state and federal levels. Passing laws at the state level and in Congress is the best way we can ensure all LGBTQ Americans are thoroughly protected from discrimination, regardless of the state they call home.”


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