NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Supporters of LGBT rights greeted with dismay and relief a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday in favor of a Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, saying the decision was unlikely to have a sweeping legal impact.
The nation’s highest court said the baker’s religious rights were violated when a state Civil Rights Commission decided he had broken Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.
The refusal by baker Jack Phillips in 2012 to make a cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig became a cultural flashpoint, seen as part of a conservative Christian backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing gay marriage.
President Donald Trump’s administration intervened in support of the baker.
But the Supreme Court ruling did not address broader questions of religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws or whether baking a cake is protected as free speech under the U.S. Constitution, experts said.
“The broad rule that the bakery was looking for here was that it had a license to discriminate,” said James Essex, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“They most emphatically did not get that ruling from this court today.”
The decision made it clear that even if the court ultimately rules in a future case that bakers or other businesses that sell creative products such as florists and wedding photographers can avoid punishment under anti-discrimination laws, most businesses open to the public would have no such defense.
Nonetheless, the couple, Mullins and Craig, said they were disappointed.
“No one should have to face the shame, embarrassment and humiliation of being told ‘we don’t serve your kind here’ that we faced,” they said on an ACLU conference call with reporters.
Annise Parker, head of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, expressed concern it could “open the floodgates” to discrimination.
“Homophobic forces will purposefully over-interpret the ruling and challenge existing non-discrimination laws by refusing service to LGBTQ people ... denying them dinner at a restaurant, lodging at a hotel, or renting an apartment,” Parker said in a statement.
The Human Rights Coalition echoed the view that the ruling “did not change our nation’s fundamental civil rights laws.”
“Regardless of today’s decision, the fact remains that LGBTQ people face alarming levels of discrimination all across the country,” the civil rights group said.
Essex added that the issue is “not about cakes.”
“It is about access to health care. It’s about access to education. It’s about employment. It’s about people being fired from jobs because their employer has a religious objection to who they are,” he said. The ACLU represented the gay couple.
“There is an intentional campaign out there of people who are opposed to LGBT rights but also to equality more broadly,” he said. “I’m sure they are out there saying this is a broad victory.”
Colorado Christian University President Donald Sweeting called it “an enormous milestone victory” for “religious freedom and freedom of conscience.”
“We are grateful that the court upheld these today,” he said in a statement.