MASTERPIECE CAKESHOP, LTD., et al., PETITIONERS v. COLORADO CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION, et al. (2018)
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.
In 2012 a same-sex couple visited Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Colorado, to make inquiries about ordering a cake for their wedding reception. The shop’s owner told the couple that he would not create a cake for their wedding because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriages—marriages the State of Colorado itself did not recognize at that time. The couple filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
The Commission determined that the shop’s actions violated the Act and ruled in the couple’s favor. The Colorado state courts affirmed the ruling and its enforcement order, and this Court now must decide whether the Commission’s order violated the Constitution.
The case presents difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles. The first is the authority of a State and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services. The second is the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.
The freedoms asserted here are both the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. The free speech aspect of this case is difficult, for few persons who have seen a beautiful wedding cake might have thought of its creation as an exercise of protected speech. This is an instructive example, however, of the proposition that the application of constitutional freedoms in new contexts can deepen our understanding of their meaning.
One of the difficulties in this case is that the parties disagree as to the extent of the baker’s refusal to provide service. If a baker refused to design a special cake with words or images celebrating the marriage—for instance, a cake showing words with religious meaning—that might be different from a refusal to sell any cake at all. In defining whether a baker’s creation can be protected, these details might make a difference.
The same difficulties arise in determining whether a baker has a valid free exercise claim. A baker’s refusal to attend the wedding to ensure that the cake is cut the right way, or a refusal to put certain religious words or decorations on the cake, or even a refusal to sell a cake that has been baked for the public generally but includes certain religious words or symbols on it are just three examples of possibilities that seem all but endless.
Whatever the confluence of speech and free exercise principles might be in some cases, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality. The reason and motive for the baker’s refusal were based on his sincere religious beliefs and convictions. The Court’s precedents make clear that the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws. Still, the delicate question of when the free exercise of his religion must yield to an otherwise valid exercise of state power needed to be determined in an adjudication in which religious hostility on the part of the State itself would not be a factor in the balance the State sought to reach. That requirement, however, was not met here. When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.
Given all these considerations, it is proper to hold that whatever the outcome of some future controversy involving facts similar to these, the Commission’s actions here violated the Free Exercise Clause; and its order must be set aside.
. . .
For most of its history, Colorado has prohibited discrimination in places of public accommodation. In 1885, less than a decade after Colorado achieved statehood, the General Assembly passed “An Act to Protect All Citizens in Their Civil Rights,” which guaranteed “full and equal enjoyment” of certain public facilities to “all citizens,” “regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” 1885 Colo. Sess. Laws pp. 132–133. A decade later, the General Assembly expanded the requirement to apply to “all other places of public accommodation.” 1895 Colo. Sess. Laws ch. 61, p. 139.
Today, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) carries forward the state’s tradition of prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation. Amended in 2007 and 2008 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as other protected characteristics, CADA in relevant part provides as follows:
“It is a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from, or deny to an individual or a group, because of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry, the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation.” Colo. Rev. Stat. §24–34–601(2)(a) (2017).
The Act defines “public accommodation” broadly to include any “place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public,” but excludes “a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place that is principally used for religious purposes.” §24–34–601(1).
CADA establishes an administrative system for the resolution of discrimination claims. Complaints of discrimination in violation of CADA are addressed in the first instance by the Colorado Civil Rights Division. The Division investigates each claim; and if it finds probable cause that CADA has been violated, it will refer the matter to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Commission, in turn, decides whether to initiate a formal hearing before a state Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who will hear evidence and argument before issuing a written decision. See §§24–34–306, 24–4–105(14). The decision of the ALJ may be appealed to the full Commission, a seven-member appointed body. The Commission holds a public hearing and deliberative session before voting on the case. If the Commission determines that the evidence proves a CADA violation, it may impose remedial measures as provided by statute. See §24–34–306(9). Available remedies include, among other things, orders to cease-and-desist a discriminatory policy, to file regular compliance reports with the Commission, and “to take affirmative action, including the posting of notices setting forth the substantive rights of the public.” §24–34–605. Colorado law does not permit the Commission to assess money damages or fines. §§24–34–306(9), 24–34–605.
(Coloroda Administrative Law Judge found for couple and Masterpiece Cakes appealed to the Colorado Civil Rights Commision.)
Phillips raised two constitutional claims before the ALJ. He first asserted that applying CADA in a way that would require him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his First Amendment right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed. The ALJ rejected the contention that preparing a wedding cake is a form of protected speech and did not agree that creating Craig and Mullins’ cake would force Phillips to adhere to “an ideological point of view.” Id., at 75a. Applying CADA to the facts at hand, in the ALJ’s view, did not interfere with Phillips’ freedom of speech.
Phillips also contended that requiring him to create cakes for same-sex weddings would violate his right to the free exercise of religion, also protected by the First Amendment. Citing this Court’s precedent in Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872 (1990), the ALJ determined that CADA is a “valid and neutral law of general applicability” and therefore that applying it to Phillips in this case did not violate the Free Exercise Clause. Id., at 879; App. to Pet. for Cert. 82a–83a. The ALJ thus ruled against Phillips and the cakeshop and in favor of Craig and Mullins on both constitutional claims.
The Commission affirmed the ALJ’s decision in full. Id., at 57a. The Commission ordered Phillips to “cease and desist from discriminating against . . . same-sex couples by refusing to sell them wedding cakes or any product [they] would sell to heterosexual couples.” . . .
Phillips appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Commission’s legal determinations and remedial order. The court rejected the argument that the “Commission’s order unconstitutionally compels” Phillips and the shop “to convey a celebratory message about same sex marriage.” Craig v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc., 370 P. 3d 272, 283 (2015). The court also rejected the argument that the Commission’s order violated the Free Exercise Clause. Relying on this Court’s precedent in Smith, supra, at 879, the court stated that the Free Exercise Clause “does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability” on the ground that following the law would interfere with religious practice or belief. 370 P. 3d, at 289. The court concluded that requiring Phillips to comply with the statute did not violate his free exercise rights. The Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Phillips sought review here, and this Court granted certiorari. 582 U. S. ___ (2017). He now renews his claims under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.
Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression. As this Court observed in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), “[t]he First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 27). Nevertheless, while those religious and philosophical objections are protected, it is a general rule that such objections 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. See Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U. S. 400, 402, n. 5 (1968) (per curiam); see also Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc., 515 U. S. 557, 572 (1995) (“Provisions like these are well within the State’s usual power to enact when a legislature has reason to believe that a given group is the target of discrimination, and they do not, as a general matter, violate the First or Fourteenth Amendments”).
When it comes to weddings, it can be assumed that a member of the clergy who objects to gay marriage on moral and religious grounds could not be compelled to perform the ceremony without denial of his or her right to the free exercise of religion. This refusal would be well understood in our constitutional order as an exercise of religion, an exercise that gay persons could recognize and accept without serious diminishment to their own dignity and worth. Yet if that exception were not confined, then a long list of persons who provide goods and services for marriages and weddings might refuse to do so for gay persons, thus resulting in a community-wide stigma inconsistent with the history and dynamics of civil rights laws that ensure equal access to goods, services, and public accommodations.
It is unexceptional that Colorado law can protect gay persons, just as it can protect other classes of individuals, in acquiring whatever products and services they choose on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public. And there are no doubt innumerable goods and services that no one could argue implicate the First Amendment. Petitioners conceded, moreover, that if a baker refused to sell any goods or any cakes for gay weddings, that would be a different matter and the State would have a strong case under this Court’s precedents that this would be a denial of goods and services that went beyond any protected rights of a baker who offers goods and services to the general public and is subject to a neutrally applied and generally applicable public accommodations law. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 4–7, 10.
Phillips claims, however, that a narrower issue is presented. He argues that he had to use his artistic skills to make an expressive statement, a wedding endorsement in his own voice and of his own creation. As Phillips would see the case, this contention has a significant First Amendment speech component and implicates his deep and sincere religious beliefs. In this context the baker likely found it difficult to find a line where the customers’ rights to goods and services became a demand for him to exercise the right of his own personal expression for their message, a message he could not express in a way consistent with his religious beliefs.
Phillips’ dilemma was particularly understandable given the background of legal principles and administration of the law in Colorado at that time. His decision and his actions leading to the refusal of service all occurred in the year 2012. At that point, Colorado did not recognize the validity of gay marriages performed in its own State. See Colo. Const., Art. II, §31 (2012); 370 P. 3d, at 277. At the time of the events in question, this Court had not issued its decisions either in United States v. Windsor, 570 U. S. 744 (2013), or Obergefell. Since the State itself did not allow those marriages to be performed in Colorado, there is some force to the argument that the baker was not unreasonable in deeming it lawful to decline to take an action that he understood to be an expression of support for their validity when that expression was contrary to his sincerely held religious beliefs, at least insofar as his refusal was limited to refusing to create and express a message in support of gay marriage, even one planned to take place in another State.
At the time, state law also afforded storekeepers some latitude to decline to create specific messages the storekeeper considered offensive. Indeed, while enforcement proceedings against Phillips were ongoing, the Colorado Civil Rights Division itself endorsed this proposition in cases involving other bakers’ creation of cakes, concluding on at least three occasions that a baker acted lawfully in declining to create cakes with decorations that demeaned gay persons or gay marriages. See Jack v. Gateaux, Ltd., Charge No. P20140071X (Mar. 24, 2015); Jack v. Le Bakery Sensual, Inc., Charge No. P20140070X (Mar. 24, 2015); Jack v. Azucar Bakery, Charge No. P20140069X (Mar. 24, 2015).
There were, to be sure, responses to these arguments that the State could make when it contended for a different result in seeking the enforcement of its generally applicable state regulations of businesses that serve the public. And any decision in favor of the baker would have to be sufficiently constrained, lest all purveyors of goods and services who object to gay marriages for moral and religious reasons in effect be allowed to put up signs saying “no goods or services will be sold if they will be used for gay marriages,” something that would impose a serious stigma on gay persons. But, nonetheless, Phillips was entitled to the neutral and respectful consideration of his claims in all the circumstances of the case.
The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here, however. 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.
That hostility surfaced at the Commission’s formal, public hearings, as shown by the record. On May 30, 2014, the seven-member Commission convened publicly to consider Phillips’ case. At several points during its meeting, commissioners endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community. One commissioner suggested that Phillips can believe “what he wants to believe,” but cannot act on his religious beliefs “if he decides to do business in the state.” Tr. 23. A few moments later, the commissioner restated the same position: “[I]f a businessman wants to do business in the state and he’s got an issue with the—the law’s impacting his personal belief system, he needs to look at being able to compromise.” Id., at 30. Standing alone, these statements are susceptible of different interpretations. On the one hand, they might mean simply that a business cannot refuse to provide services based on sexual orientation, regardless of the proprietor’s personal views. On the other hand, they might be seen as inappropriate and dismissive comments showing lack of due consideration for Phillips’ free exercise rights and the dilemma he faced. In view of the comments that followed, the latter seems the more likely.
On July 25, 2014, the Commission met again. This meeting, too, was conducted in public and on the record. On this occasion another commissioner made specific reference to the previous meeting’s discussion but said far more to disparage Phillips’ beliefs. The commissioner stated:
“I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. 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, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.” Tr. 11–12.
To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere. The commissioner even went so far as to compare Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s antidiscrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.
The record shows no objection to these comments from other commissioners. And the later state-court ruling reviewing the Commission’s decision did not mention those comments, much less express concern with their content. Nor were the comments by the commissioners disavowed in the briefs filed in this Court. For these reasons, the Court cannot avoid the conclusion that these statements cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case. Members of the Court have disagreed on the question whether statements made by lawmakers may properly be taken into account in determining whether a law intentionally discriminates on the basis of religion. See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 540–542 (1993); id., at 558 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). In this case, however, the remarks were made in a very different context—by an adjudicatory body deciding a particular case.
Another indication of hostility is the difference in treatment between Phillips’ case and the cases of other bakers who objected to a requested cake on the basis of conscience and prevailed before the Commission.
As noted above, on at least three other occasions the Civil Rights Division considered the refusal of bakers to create cakes with images that conveyed disapproval of same-sex marriage, along with religious text. Each time, the Division found that the baker acted lawfully in refusing service. It made these determinations because, in the words of the Division, the requested cake included “wording and images [the baker] deemed derogatory,” Jack v. Gateaux, Ltd., Charge No. P20140071X, at 4; featured “language and images [the baker] deemed hateful,” Jack v. Le Bakery Sensual, Inc., Charge No. P20140070X, at 4; or displayed a message the baker “deemed as discriminatory, Jack v. Azucar Bakery, Charge No. P20140069X, at 4.
The treatment of the conscience-based objections at issue in these three cases contrasts with the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ objection. The Commission ruled against Phillips in part on the theory that any message the requested wedding cake would carry would be attributed to the customer, not to the baker. Yet the Division did not address this point in any of the other cases with respect to the cakes depicting anti-gay marriage symbolism. Additionally, the Division found no violation of CADA in the other cases in part because each bakery was willing to sell other products, including those depicting Christian themes, to the prospective customers. But the Commission dismissed Phillips’ willingness to sell “birthday cakes, shower cakes, [and] cookies and brownies,” App. 152, to gay and lesbian customers as irrelevant. The treatment of the other cases and Phillips’ case could reasonably be interpreted as being inconsistent as to the question of whether speech is involved, quite apart from whether the cases should ultimately be distinguished. In short, the Commission’s consideration of Phillips’ religious objection did not accord with its treatment of these other objections.
Before the Colorado Court of Appeals, Phillips protested that this disparity in treatment reflected hostility on the part of the Commission toward his beliefs. He argued that the Commission had treated the other bakers’ conscience-based objections as legitimate, but treated his as illegitimate—thus sitting in judgment of his religious beliefs themselves.
. . .
A principled rationale for the difference in treatment of these two instances cannot be based on the government’s own assessment of offensiveness. Just as “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion,” West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624, 642 (1943), it is not, as the Court has repeatedly held, the role of the State or its officials to prescribe what shall be offensive. See Matal v. Tam, 582 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2017) (opinion of Alito, J.) (slip op., at 22–23). The Colorado court’s attempt to account for the difference in treatment elevates one view of what is offensive over another and itself sends a signal of official disapproval of Phillips’ religious beliefs. The court’s footnote does not, therefore, answer the baker’s concern that the State’s practice was to disfavor the religious basis of his objection.
For the reasons just described, the Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case violated the State’s duty under the First Amendment not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or religious viewpoint.
. . .
The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided. In this case the adjudication concerned a context that may well be different going forward in the respects noted above. However later cases raising these or similar concerns are resolved in the future, for these reasons the rulings of the Commission and of the state court that enforced the Commission’s order must be invalidated.
The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances 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 without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.
The judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals is reversed.
It is so ordered.