Will Colorado’s cake shop decision affect Washington’s gay wedding case?

Jun 5, 2018, 6:10 AM
Supreme Court, gay wedding...
A gay wedding cake. (AP)

Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop received a win in the U.S. Supreme Court this week, leaving many to wonder if the court’s decision will echo through similar gay wedding cases in states like Washington.

RELATED: Seattle cafe can expect education from state human rights commission

Does this mean that bakers, photographers, florists or other businesses can discriminate against same-sex couples? Perhaps not.

In Colorado’s case, the court focused on how the matter was handled by the state’s civil rights commission — and how it treated religion. That’s the key to understanding the implications of the court’s decision, according to Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at UCLA.

“This case could have been a very, very broad ruling, but instead it was very narrow,” Adam Winkler told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “The court said that the problem here was that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had expressed hostility towards particular religious beliefs and that no one should be forced to go before such a commission and be treated unequally because of their religion.”

The court ruled the Colorado commission was not “neutral toward religion.” It’s an important ruling, yet quite narrow because the case presented a larger issue of whether businesses have a right to discriminate.

“The court really punted on that question,” Winkler said.

It’s a question the court left for another day.

The larger issue

The remaining debate wasn’t absent among the supreme court justices, however. That debate lives on in their written opinions after the decision.

“The court’s majority opinion avoided it altogether,” Winkler said. “In a concurring opinion, Justice (Elena) Kagan argued that these laws that bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, if they are applied neutrally, apply to everyone. No bakery gets an exception. Meanwhile, Justice (Neil) Gorsuch, in his concurring opinion, wrote that a religiously-motivated baker would have a very strong First Amendment case to fight against anti-discrimination laws.”

Washington’s gay wedding case

Washington’s own gay wedding controversy has been sent to the nation’s Supreme Court and awaits consideration. With the larger issue “punted,” as Winkler says, and Washington’s case at the Supreme Court’s door, it is likely that the court will have to take up the issue eventually.

The Richland florist was found to have discriminated against a couple when owner Barronelle Stutzman refused to sell flowers for a gay wedding in 2013. The case has lingered ever since. Finally, the state’s supreme court ruled that Arlene’s Flowers discriminated against the couple in a 2017 decision.

Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Monday that the Supreme Court’s decision for Masterpiece Cakeshop “may add some procedural steps to the Arlene’s Flowers case, but it will not alter its ultimate resolution.” Ferguson notes the court focused on Colorado’s commission, not the larger case. He says there are many factual differences between Masterpiece Cakeshop and Arlene’s Flowers.

“Washington law protects people from discrimination in places of public accommodation,” Ferguson said. “Today’s ruling specifically notes that such laws are appropriate. All of us should be able to eat in a restaurant, rent an apartment, or buy flowers without fear of discrimination based on how we worship, or who we love. If I go to a restaurant with my young twins to celebrate their First Communion, I should not have to worry about whether a restaurant will refuse to serve us because we are Catholic.”

Ferguson also said Monday that he sent a letter to Stutzman prior to filing a lawsuit against her — he asked her to stop discriminating through her business. She didn’t and that prompted the state to sue. The state has only sued for $1, plus a $1,000 fine. It is not yet known if the Supreme Court will take up the Arlene’s Flowers case — if it makes a decision in a similar case, it could be denied. If that happens, it would be referred back to the state’s Supreme Court.

Response to Masterpiece Cakeshop decision

Monday’s Supreme Court decision was met with criticism across Washington. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said it was “appalling and unjust.” Washington Governor Jay Inslee noted the Arlene’s Flowers case Monday, stating:

Intolerance has no home in Washington state, and today’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision by the Supreme Court does nothing to change that.

Our effort to protect couples from unlawful discrimination was upheld in the Arlene’s Flowers case by our state Supreme Court last year, and remains the law of our land.

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Will Colorado’s cake shop decision affect Washington’s gay wedding case?