No, The Supreme Court Did Not Just Rule That It’s Okay To Discriminate Against LGBTQ People

The court's ruling does not seem to be what people think it is. And that's better than the alternative.

After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, the internet exploded with misinformation.

Many of those  sensitive to the plight of LGBTQ individuals who experience daily discrimination expressed outrage and remorse, believing that the Supreme Court just said it was OK to refuse those individuals service because of their identity. Others, like the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., seemed to misunderstand why the court's decision was described as "narrow" despite the ruling being 7-2 in favor of Phillips.

The concerns of the LGBTQ community are absolutely legitimate, but it's worth going over the facts of ruling. The reason that The Associated Press and other news outlets described the Supreme Court's decision as "narrow" is not because the vote was close — it wasn't. Instead, the outlets are describing the fact that the Supreme Court ruled on a very narrow part of the case. It'd be more accurate to say the Supreme Court kicked the proverbial can down the road. They avoided almost entirely the larger question at hand, which is also the one most people are worried about: whether business owners can refuse to serve LGBTQ people  on the grounds of their own religious beliefs.

Instead, the Supreme Court ruled that Phillips was treated unfairly by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Justice Kennedy described in his opinion as showing "hostility" towards Phillips' religious beliefs. Kennedy's opinion was based on comments made by members of the anti-discrimination panel, including one commissioner's reported comment that invoked slavery and the Holocaust before calling Phillips' religious freedom claim a "despicable" piece of rhetoric, according to Politico. 

The commission had asked Phillips to "cease and desist" from his refusal to bake a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple, as well as participate in staff training and two years of record-keeping of refusals to provide service. Phillips had argued the commission was trying to force him into expressing support for same-sex marriage, which ran counter to his closely held religious beliefs. 

WASHINGTON June 26 - A crowd gathers at the U.S. Supreme opinion after its ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states was delivered on June 26, 2015
WASHINGTON June 26 - A crowd gathers at the U.S. Supreme opinion after its ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states was delivered on June 26, 2015 Shutterstock / Rena Schild

"The Commission's hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment's guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion," Kennedy wrote. "Phillips was entitled to a neutral decision-maker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided."

The Supreme Court did not rule that it was okay for someone to discriminate or refuse to serve LGBTQ  individuals because of their sincerely held religious beliefs. More specifically, Kennedy said that there were difficulties in determining to what extent the baker refused to provide service, given that he only refused to make a specific cake while still offering to provide other services to the  couple. He also stated clearly that cases in similar circumstances must await further elaboration from the courts, and that all disputes must be resolved "without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market."

Hopefully, the courts continue to move on these cases while protecting LGBT folks. And while the ruling's not as bad as it may seem, there is legitimate concern from LGBT advocates about what this ruling might foreshadow. 

"While the Supreme Court made a narrow ruling focused exclusively on a state agency's treatment of a Colorado baker, opponents of equality will use it to try and open the floodgates," former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a press release. "Homophobic forces will purposefully over-interpret the ruling and challenge existing non-discrimination laws by refusing service to LGBTQ people in even more situations – denying them dinner at a restaurant, lodging at a hotel, or renting an apartment."

For now, though, LGBT advocates should breathe a temporary sigh of relief that this ruling is not legalizing discrimination in the way many people seem to think it is. 

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Rena Schild 

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