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Let Them Eat Cake:  Supreme Court Fails to Decide Underlying Civil Rights Issues in Masterpiece

Let Them Eat Cake: Supreme Court Fails to Decide Underlying Civil Rights Issues in Masterpiece*

On June 4, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) rendered a highly-anticipated decision in the now infamous case Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the 2012 case in which a Colorado baker refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

In Masterpiece, the couple that was denied the cake filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the “Commission”), which is a state agency akin to New York’s Division of Human Rights.  The couple argued that they had been denied full and equal service on the basis of their sexual orientation which is a violation of Colorado’s anti-discrimination and public accommodations law.  After the Commission found in favor of the same-sex couple, the case was appealed to state and then federal court, ultimately making its way up to the SCOTUS.

The Court began by acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling two competing rights raised in this case: gay rights under State law and First Amendment freedom of speech and exercise of religion rights.  Ultimately the Court found a way to decide the case without having to reach that thorny issue, punting the reconciliation of those competing rights to a future case.  SCOTUS determined that the Commission did not maintain religious neutrality when hearing the case and for this reason the Commission’s decision had to be reversed.  Specifically, the record showed that certain members of the Commission made several comments that were derogatory towards the baker’s religion and questioned the sincerity of the baker’s religious beliefs before the Commission made a decision in the same-sex couple’s favor.  This “clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated [the baker’s] objection” violated the First Amendment and was sufficient to overturn the Commission’s decision.  The Court acknowledged that there were times in which a private business owner servicing the public may be required to have his freedom of religion limited by state law, but the question of when that is required to happen requires a delicate balancing by an impartial, religious-neutral tribunal; according to SCOTUS, the Commission did not fulfill that role in this case.

New York State has an anti-discrimination and public accommodations law similar to the one in Colorado.  In 2003, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (“SONDA”) was passed to add “sexual orientation” to the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”).  NYSHRL Section 296(2) prohibits owners, managers, and employees of any place of public accommodation from refusing or denying accommodations to an individual on the basis of, among other things, sexual orientation.  Section 292(9) of the NYSHRL defines public accommodation to include a wide range of private businesses that offer and sell food and services to the public such as restaurants, stores, ice cream parlors, and taverns. Under both Colorado and New York’s anti-discrimination and public accommodations laws, a bakery qualifies as a “public accommodation” that cannot refuse to provide goods and services to members of the public on the basis of, among other protected classes, sexual orientation.

Given the similarities of the state laws and the issues left unresolved by SCOTUS, it is conceivable that a situation similar to the one that arose in Masterpiece could occur here in New York.  If it does, the Masterpiece decision would not provide controlling precedent on the issue of whether or not a baker’s First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution must yield to a gay couple’s civil rights protected under NYSHRL.  However, dicta in the decision could provide guidance in analyzing future cases.  For instance, the Court in Masterpiece was careful to note that an individual’s First Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of religion “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.”  In addition, the Court recognized that any exception that could be carved for a freedom of religion objection to providing public accommodations to a member of a protected class could result in a slippery slope where protected classes are being denied a wide range of goods and services under the guise of freedom of religion and speech.

Therefore, before private business owners take the Masterpiece case as an invitation to deny goods and services to protected classes of individuals on the basis of freedom of expression and exercise of religion, they would be wise to consult with an attorney to be sure that they are acting within the parameters of the law.

*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.  This is not intended to be legal advice.  You should contact an attorney for advice regarding your specific situation.


Jennifer S. Echevarria is an Associate with the firm and practices Immigration and Employment Law including U-Visas and wage violations.  She is bilingual in Spanish and can be reached by phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.

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