No Precedent Set by Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision


Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, speaks in front of the Supreme Court. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

In the current political climate, at times it feels as if the social progression that may have been taken for granted under the previous administration is now up for debate. For advocates of LGBTQ*+ rights, for instance, it may appear as if the Obama-era steps toward social equality are threatened by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

In a 7 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, arguing that it would be in violation of his religious rights. In light of the Supreme Court’s more conservative bent, this was not a very surprising outcome. If anything, what makes this ruling notable is how underwhelming it was.

In the months leading up to the decision, the case was widely considered to be a manifestation of the tension between religious freedom and gay rights – two privileges that are at least theoretically protected by the Constitution but present rather stark conflicts. It was expected that Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission would become a landmark case, setting precedent for future conflicts between religion and inclusionary civil rights matters. However, the decision was made in such a way that it had much less impact on legal precedent than it could have.

The rationale for the ruling did not revolve around this tension between LGBTQ*+ and First Amendment rights. Instead, it was based on some comments made by a few affiliates for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that the Supreme Court saw as being indicative of their hostility toward Jack Phillips’ religious freedom.  

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for this case, which is a point of interest because he is known as both a strong advocate for gay rights and an avid defender of First Amendment protections. In keeping with this reputation, he reaffirmed the legal protections offered to members of the LGBTQ*+ community even as he wrote a decision that ultimately prioritized the rights granted to Phillips under  the Free Exercise Clause.

The implications of the Masterpiece Cake Shop decision are minimal. The findings are not  applicable to any other case that primarily concerns the free exercise of religion or LGBTQ*+ rights, but there are still LGBTQ*+ rights advocates who worry that this ruling could serve as justification for refusing to serve members of the LGBTQ*+ community across the nation. But the reality is that the Court’s opinion says nothing about condoning discrimination based on sexuality. Anyone who tried to use the case to justify discriminatory behavior would be misrepresenting the actual decision.

In fact, Justice Kennedy explicitly wrote that “[t]he 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.”

It is even plausible that both sides – religious freedom advocates as well as proponents of LGBTQ*+  rights – come away with a sense of validation as a result of this decision. What really should be taken away from all this, though, is the understanding that the way this case was settled does not allow it to be applicable to other legal scenarios.

What could have been a landmark decision for the LGBTQ*+ community was not;  it reached an unsurprisingly conservative verdict and failed to establish legal precedent on the issue.

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