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Supreme Court’s same-sex bakery ruling unlikely to affect employment law

Supreme Court’s same-sex bakery ruling unlikely to affect employment law

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday in the closely watched Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which came down in favor of the bakery owner who refused to prepare a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, was narrowly written and case-specific, and should have no impact on employers’ policies, legal experts say.

“It really doesn’t change anything” insofar as employers are concerned, said Lisa McGlynn, an associate with Fisher & Phillips L.L.P. in Tampa, Florida.

The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. et al. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission et al., began in 2012, when a same-sex couple visited Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, to make inquiries about ordering a cake for their wedding reception. 

The shop’s owner, Jack Phillips, told the couple he would not create a cake for their wedding because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage, which the state of Colorado did not recognize at that time, the ruling said

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 ruled in the couple’s favor, which was later affirmed by Colorado state courts.

In ruling in the shop owner’s favor, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion pointed to comments made at the commission’s hearing, including one, it said, in which a commissioner disparaged the owner’s religious beliefs.

“The delicate question of when the free exercise of (the owner’s) 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 for 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.”

JoLynn M. Markison, a partner with Dorsey & Whitney L.L.P. in Minneapolis, said: “I think employers who fancy themselves to be religious or to have a religious belief about homosexuality may gravitate towards this decision,” but “I don’t think it gives them anything to hang their hats on by way of acceptable conduct in the workplace.”

“The decision is really narrow. It doesn’t even actually decide the issue that was before the court, which was how the freedom of religion interacts with the freedom to be free from discrimination,“ she said. “The court punted the issue, finding instead one of the commissioners and the commission itself was hostile to religion,” said Ms. Markison.

The ruling “isn’t going to impact what conduct is acceptable in the workplace. It doesn’t extend to Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). It doesn’t really do much of anything, I don’t think, in the workplace.”

Mark T. Phillis, a shareholder with Littler Mendelson P.C. in Pittsburgh, said: “Since the court decided it on such a narrow, fact-specific basis,” the decision does not provide the guidance “that people were hoping it would provide.”

 It does serve as remainder, he added, however, that employers must “reasonably accommodate people on the basis of their religious beliefs.”


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