Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodations based on sex.
Editor’s Note: Vanita Gupta is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The words “equal justice under law” are engraved on the outside of the Supreme Court. In the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the justices decided – once again – that those words are more than an engraving but also a true reflection of our highest values.
The Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling Monday in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop bakery owner Jack Phillips, who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple due to the shop owner’s religious beliefs.
Notably, the court limited its decision to the specifics of this case – mainly how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission handled Phillips’ claim. The court did not rule that the Constitution grants the right to discriminate but maintained the longstanding principle that business owners cannot deny equal access to goods and services.
The court stated that it may face the constitutional question in future cases that present different circumstances – Monday’s ruling is likely not the final word.
The case did, however, unearth a question decided half a century ago: Can business owners in America use their religious beliefs as a justification to discriminate?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in public accommodations based on race, color, religion or national origin. The landmark legislation embodied our country’s collective sense of right and wrong. Several years later, in the 1968 Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises decision, the Supreme Court upheld the law by rejecting a barbecue restaurant owner’s claim that his religious beliefs justified discrimination against African-American customers.
Masterpiece Cakeshop raised a similar – and equally troubling – claim: whether Phillips could ignore state nondiscrimination laws because of his religious beliefs.
In recent years, the Supreme Court recognized that discrimination against LGBTQ individuals violates our constitutional principles. In the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision establishing full marriage equality in America, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the following words about the same-sex couples who brought the lawsuit: “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
And yet our nation falls short of fully realizing that right. And because of those who insist on challenging equality for LGBTQ people, the Supreme Court in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case was once again faced with the question of whether the law of the land recognizes equal dignity for same-sex couples.
Freedom of religion is a cherished and well-protected constitutional right in the United States, and the civil rights community is dedicated to safeguarding religious liberty for everyone.
But religion must not translate into a license to discriminate – nor trample people’s protections under the law. Requiring companies to abide by nondiscrimination laws does not require business owners to abandon their religious beliefs. It merely requires them to honor the clear constitutional rights of others.
Some people might dismiss the principles at stake in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case by arguing that a gay couple can simply purchase their cake elsewhere. But Masterpiece Cakeshop is no more about cake than Piggie Park was about barbecue. The court acknowledged that “it is a general rule that (religious) objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services.” Otherwise, the door to widespread discrimination will open, undermining the legal foundation for equal rights and justice.
Consider the consequences had the Supreme Court given Phillips a sweeping victory. If a company can refuse to sell wedding cakes to a gay couple on the basis of religious convictions, can a restaurant also then refuse to serve food to a divorcée or an unmarried couple with a child? Can a taxi driver deny a ride to an interracial couple?
Through much of our nation’s history, the concept of sincerely held religious beliefs excused legalized discrimination against African-Americans – including at restaurants and schools, and in marriage. Those policies tore apart families, devastated futures and relegated communities, including immigrants and people of color, to second-class citizenship.
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Piggie Park marked the beginning of our courts acknowledging and enforcing America’s obligation of equality under the law when it comes to public accommodations. Fifty years later, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case posed the same question, and the court affirmed the underlying principle that our nation’s businesses should be open to all. But make no mistake: Monday’s decision makes clear that our fight for equal rights and dignity for all must continue.