SALT LAKE CITY — The Supreme Court today said not yet to a second helping of cake.
Justices announced that they won’t hear a new case on the religious freedom and free speech rights of bakers who refuse to sell custom wedding cakes to same-sex couples for religious reasons. But they did send it back to the lower courts for reconsideration.
That means questions left unanswered in last year’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will remain unanswered for now. Justices may be stalling to give advocates for LGBTQ rights and religious freedom more time to reach a compromise outside the courtroom, legal experts said.
"These disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services," now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Masterpiece ruling last year. Justices asked lower courts to consider whether proceedings in the new cake case live up to that standard.
Tolerance is a tall order in today's political landscape, which is dominated by winner-take-all thinking. In recent debates over the Equality Act, legislation that would add protections for gay and transgender Americans to federal nondiscrimination law, members of Congress appeared more interested in crushing their opponents than achieving bipartisan consensus.
"In principle, we could agree on a negotiated solution in which core religious practices get protected and more marginal ones get regulated. The obstacle to that is the hardliners on each end," said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia, to the Deseret News this spring.
The new wedding cake case, which originated in Oregon, involves a family-owned bakery, Sweetcakes by Melissa, and a lesbian couple. It originated in 2012, when bakery owners Melissa and Aaron Klein told Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer that making a same-sex wedding cake would violate the bakery owners' religious beliefs.
The Bowman-Cryers complained to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, which ruled the Kleins had violated state nondiscrimination law and must pay $135,000 in damages.
After a state appeals court affirmed the decision and the Oregon Supreme Court refused to weigh in, Sweetcakes by Melissa went out of business.
However, the case lived on. The Kleins appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in November.
Like Masterpiece, Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries asks whether religious freedom or LGBTQ rights should take precedence when nondiscrimination laws clash with the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court sidestepped that question in its Masterpiece decision. Justices based their 7-2 decision on the actions of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, ruling that it had unlawfully disrespected the religious beliefs of a Christian baker.
Many small business owners "were left questioning, 'OK, where does that leave us?'" said Mike Berry, chief of state for First Liberty Institute, which represents the Kleins, to the Deseret News in November.
Berry and other religious freedom advocates pitched the Klein case as an opportunity to resolve those questions. But Supreme Court justices seem to want someone else to figure out the answers.
"By asking the state courts to reconsider their ruling in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the justices are, in effect, asking the Oregon courts if a similarly narrow basis is available for resolving this case," said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, to CNN.
Justices vacated the ruling against the Kleins, but didn't signal who should win when the case is reconsidered. Still, the couple's attorneys described Monday's announcement as something to celebrate.116 comments on this story
"This is a victory for Aaron and Melissa Klein and for religious liberty for all Americans," said Kelly Shackelford, First Liberty's president, CEO and chief counsel, in a statement.
The Supreme Court will likely have to weigh in on the broader legal questions eventually, regardless of its decision not to hear this new case right now, according to legal experts.
"The high court is more likely to grant a different case raising the same issue — a dispute between a florist in Washington state and a gay couple — later this year or in 2020," USA Today reported.