Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop. Source: Reuters.

While the Rocky Mountain Sign Blog is geared toward issues that involve free speech and land use law, we geek out about any Supreme Court case that addresses First Amendment issues, even those outside of our weird little land use world.  Yesterday, our appetite for Supreme Court First Amendment law was only moderately satiated.  The U.S. Supreme Court issued its much-awaited ruling in the hot-button First Amendment case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

In the case, a gay couple sought relief when a baker refused to bake them a wedding cake on the grounds that his religious beliefs did not support same-sex marriage.  The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, prohibited the baker from denying service to the couple, and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the Civil Rights Commission’s decision.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed, finding that statements made by members of the Civil Rights Commission evinced hostility toward religion, and that the Commission’s action thus violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  During their deliberations, Commission members had commented on prior use of religion to condone discriminatory action, and made other statements that the Supreme Court interpreted as being hostile toward religion.  Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion, and Justices Kagan, Gorsuch, and Thomas authored concurrences in the decision.  Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissented, on the grounds that they did not believe that any statements of the Commission evidenced discrimination.

While the entire Court declined to address the appellant’s free speech claim, the conservative duo of Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote separately to address that issue.  Justice Thomas began his concurrence by noting that the Court has previously held anti-discrimination laws unconstitutional as applied when the discriminatory conduct at issue is expressive, citing Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston and Boy Scouts of America v. Dale.  The two justices, applying a long line of cases that have held various forms of artistic expression to be First Amendment-protected, found that Masterpiece Cakeshop’s baker, Jack Phillips, engages in expressive activity when he creates wedding cakes.  Once they found that Phillips’s cake-making was expressive, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch would have applied strict scrutiny review.  They expressed concern with the fact that Colorado law would apparently command someone engaged in expressive activity to express particular views, whereas prior Supreme Court case law makes clear that offensive speech cannot constitutionally be prohibited.

While the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop gives us little with respect to the Court’s direction on free speech issues, the concurrence of Justice Thomas at least hints at the direction that two of the justices would lean.  We’ll have to wait for the next major religion-free speech battle to see how this one plays out.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, ___ S. Ct. ____, 2018 WL 2465172 (U.S. Jun. 4, 2018).

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Photo of Brian J. Connolly Brian J. Connolly

Brian Connolly represents public- and private-sector clients in matters relating to zoning, planning, development entitlements and other complex regulatory issues.  Brian’s practice encompasses a broad range of land use matters including zoning compliance, rezonings and other regulatory amendments, planned-unit developments, development agreements, private covenants and restrictions, land use and zoning litigation, initiatives and referenda associated with land use approvals, and real estate transactions.  Brian additionally specializes in the First Amendment and land use issues associated with outdoor sign and advertising regulation, and fair housing matters in local planning and zoning.