Monday, June 04, 2018

Having Your (Masterpiece) Cake and Eating It Too

The Supreme Court  has issued its long-anticipated decision in the Masterpiece Cake case (where a Christian baker refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple). It ruled in favor of the baker by a 7-2 vote, but on exceedingly narrow grounds (I'll get to those in a moment) that provide virtually no guidance to resolving similar cases in the future. On the other hand, given the way oral argument went, I'd say we might have even dodged a bullet.

Basically, Justice Kennedy's majority opinion concluded that certain statements by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (which concluded that the baker had discriminated against the couple in violation of Colorado law) indicated that they held anti-religious bias. This bias tainted the proceedings in an unconstitutional manner, and hence the ruling had to be set aside.

On that point, there are two comments worth making. First, in the abstract I wholly agree that religious hostility provides a sufficient basis for invalidating a government action even in cases where -- absent said hostility -- the substantive decision might well be constitutional. If a commissioner in a case like this said "I'll be damned if I'm going to rule in favor of some towel-wearing heathen," that to me is an obvious constitutional violation on its own. So to the extent Masterpiece Cake clarifies that point of law, I have no quarrel.

Second, as applied to the facts of this case I think the evidence of anti-religious animus on the part of the Commission is pretty thin. Certainly, it is microscopic compared to the evidence of anti-religious animus in the travel ban case -- though who knows if that will matter. But if the upshot of this case is that governmental decision-makers need to step more lightly around grandstanding declarations when dealing with sensitive areas of discrimination and religious freedom, that's not the worst thing in the world.

In any event, because the Court's decision was based on a finding of religious animus in the administrative proceedings, Justice Kennedy specifically stated that the Court was making no proclamation on how a case with even identical facts (but absent the biased state-level decisionmaker) should be decided. Hence why we get no real guidance on how to handle similar disputes going forward. But the majority opinion actually contains a lot of dictum emphasizing that there are perfectly legitimate anti-discrimination considerations the state has here and can legitimately impose (in a neutral, generally-applicable fashion) onto religious objectors. So to some extent, the tea-leaf reading off this case is considerably better than one might think.

But while much of the attention has focused on the religious freedom aspects of the case, it's the compelled speech issue that I think will be more nettlesome going forward. The Court declined to wade into that issue in this case, both because it was resting on the narrow religious animus ground and because the relevant parts of the record in this case were surprisingly opaque (Justice Thomas made a game effort to argue that the issue was ripe in this case, but I'm unconvinced).

When does selling a cake become a form of (compelled) expression by the baker? On the one hand, simply selling an "off-the-rack" cake should not be viewed as compelled expression by the seller that they approve of the buyer or what the buyer plans to do with the cake (a half-century old Supreme Court case quite quickly dispensed with a claim that a barbeque vendor could circumvent anti-racism laws compelling him to serve Black customers because doing so would communicate the message that he believes in racial equality, in violation of his religious beliefs). On the far other side, consider cake orders with specific messages to be engraved like "Homosexuality is a detestable sin" (the Colorado Commission received complaints when several bakers refused to bake cakes with that message, and dismissed them). There, the compelled speech claim seems stronger. Presumably, that would have to hold in cases where the text was something like "God loves gay people same as straight" -- it's expression, and if someone genuinely doesn't want to express that message, I don't think the government can compel him to do it.

There are any number of cases in the middle. I don't think a custom-cake order necessarily becomes a case of expression (e.g., a cake with no text but where the purchaser wants a specific design) -- but what if it is specifically requested to have rainbow coloration? Or consider more anodyne messages like "Congratulations Jim and Steve". Such cases are going to reflect some difficult judgments, and we still have only dim contours on what the right legal guidelines are.

As for the other opinions: Justice Gorsuch's was predictably terrible. It rests primarily on the somewhat odd belief that there is a distinct product called a "same-sex wedding cake" that is different in-kind from a "wedding cake" (is it something in the food coloring?). Consequently, Justice Gorsuch can deny that there is any discrimination occurring against same-sex couples because the baker presumably would decline to sell both straight and gay customers a "same-sex wedding cake". This is the same logic through which gay marriage bans were not forms of anti-gay discrimination because gay and straight individuals could not perform a gay marriage, and it is eviscerated both in Justice Kagan's concurrence and Justice Ginsburg's dissent. As Justice Kagan aptly put it: "A vendor can choose the products he sells, but not the customers he serves—no matter the reason." A wedding cake is a wedding cake -- it doesn't magically become a different product because of the sexual orientation of the purchaser.

Indeed, one thing that this case made clear for me is that the category "gay marriage" may have outlived its usefulness. In American law, there are no longer "gay marriages" as a qualitatively distinct entity. There are "marriages", which are sometimes entered into by straight couples and sometimes by gay couples. Of course, people in private life are free to maintain the distinction, and sometimes those private views can carry weight (the obvious case being the right of a religious officiant not to solemnize a gay wedding). But these should be seen as areas where we're departing from the general neutrality of the law and accordingly need justification; the default understanding should be weddings are weddings are weddings.

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