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SCOTUS wedding cake ruling is a victory for both sides -- and neither

Posted: 12:15 AM, Jun 05, 2018
Updated: 2018-06-05 05:15:45Z

CINCINNATI -- If LGBT activists and religious groups were expecting the United States Supreme Court to once-and-for-all pick a side with its ruling in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission -- a case in which a baker refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding  -- they went to bed Monday disappointed. 

The court instead carved out a narrow slice of justice, which many political analysts believe is unlikely to seriously impact other cases in which religious individuals refuse to provide services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

It's a confection that activists on both sides can simultaneously interpret as victory and defeat.

"It's not exactly the decision that we were hoping for on the front end, but certainly not a step back," Human Rights Campaign board member Steve Newsome said. Human Rights Campaign is among the United States' largest LGBT advocacy organizations. "There were folks behind this case that wanted to use this case as a license to discriminate, and the court did not give them that today."

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, who cited his faith as he turned down a gay couple's request that he make a cake for their wedding reception in 2012. The couple said they were "humiliated" by the refusal and filed a discrimination complaint with Colorado's Civil Rights Commission.

Although the complainants won before the Commission and, on appeal, before state courts, the Supreme Court overruled those verdicts. The Commission, the justices found, had been influenced by "religious animus" and demonstrated hostility in its comments toward Phillips, rendering its ruling questionable. 

Specifically, the court took issue with a commissioner's comment that "freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust," equating Phillips' objection to those events.

"The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion . "The Civil Rights Commission's treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection."

Aaron Baer, president of the conservative Christian organization Citizens for Community Values, said he viewed the ruling as a step forward for groups like his -- those that hold religiously grounded beliefs opposing same-sex marriage.

"What was really clear in this decision is that the government cannot discriminate against people of faith," he said.

Justice Kennedy's opinion also included assertions that "gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferiority in dignity and worth" and stressed the Commission's failure in Colorado was a failure of procedure and behavior rather than a failure of principle. 

Both LGBT people and religious people remain entitled to civil protection under United States law, he wrote, and any future clashes between the two groups "must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs and with subjecting gay persons to indignities."