For the second time in as many years, the Supreme Court on Monday engaged on a major religious liberty case involving same-sex marriage, but is sidestepping for now the substantive issue of alleged religion-based discrimination.
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The court granted the petition of Christian bakers in Oregon who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because of their religious beliefs and wiped away a lower court ruling against them. The justices sent the case back to the Sixth Circuit for further consideration.
Instructing the appeals court to reexamine the matter in light of a similar, narrowly-decided case last year from Colorado, the justices left open the key question of when discrimination on religious grounds can override civil rights protections written into law.
In the 2018 "Masterpiece Cakeshop" decision, the court focused solely on actions by the Colorado civil rights commission, which had penalized the baker for refusing to serve the couple. The court said the agency failed to show “religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.”
“Any decision in favor of the baker would have to be sufficiently constrained,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote at the time, “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.”
The Oregon case involves Melissa and Aaron Klein, the owners of Sweetcakes bakery in Portland, Ore. In 2013, the bakers refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. A state administrative board said Sweetcakes violated anti-discrimination laws, awarding the couple $135,000.
The Kleins, who have since shut down their bakery, contend their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and free speech were violated. “Any cake the complainants might have commissioned would have required them to employ their artistic skill to communicate a celebratory message about a same-sex wedding ritual that conflicts with the Kleins’ religious convictions,” they argued in court documents.
Oregon state courts have affirmed the board’s decision.