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Why the Supreme Court made a narrow ruling in the Colorado baker case

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple. Marcia Coyle of National Law Journal joins Amna Nawaz to explain the decision and why it’s what the court didn’t say that’s significant.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we reported earlier, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple.

    Marcia Coyle of "National Law Journal" is here to explain the decision.

    Marcia, welcome.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We thought we were going to get a big decision today with broad implications, right? The central question here was, can business owners actually discriminate? Can they refuse services to you customers on the basis of religion? Did we get that decision?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    No.

    In fact, it's important to know what the court didn't do here. It didn't gave a green light to business owners to discriminate on the basis of religion against members of the gay community or other protected individuals.

    Instead, what the court did was, it sort of dug deep into the record in this case, this particular case involving Mr. Phillips, the baker, and found that, when the case went before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission on the claim, discrimination claim brought against him, that one or two members of the commission made statements that Justice Kennedy and the other members of the majority felt showed evidence of hostility towards religion and Mr. Phillips' religious beliefs.

    And on that basis, based on those facts, those circumstances, the court felt that it had to reverse the ruling of the lower court in favor of the same-sex couple that brought the discrimination claim.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It was a 7-2 decision.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Justice Ginsburg drafted the dissent. And in that, she made clear she felt that it was a discrimination case.

    And she wrote, "The fact that Phillips," the cake maker, "might sell other cakes and cookies to gay and lesbian customers was irrelevant to the issue Craig and Mullins'," the gay couple, "case presented. What matters is that Phillips wouldn't provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple."

    But to your earlier point, Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion here, basically said, we're going to have to take these on a case-by-case basis.

    He wrote, "The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services."

    This was a key part of Justice Kennedy's argument, the dignity of the person.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    It's a key part of his entire jurisprudence since he's been on the Supreme Court, the dignity of the individual.

    And this case was sort of a tough case for him because it involved the intersection of two areas of the law where he's very strong, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and also equal rights, the dignity of each individual.

    And so he had to navigate between those two areas to find something that he could at least form a majority around. And that's why this decision is narrow. It's also important that he reemphasized that there's a general rule that when a state has, as Colorado did, a public accommodations law, basically an anti-discrimination law, as long as it's a neutral law and it's applied generally to the public, business owners and others who are actors in the economy cannot use religious objections or philosophical objections in order to deny services and goods to protected classes of people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Marcia Coyle, thanks for your time.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure.

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