What The Supreme Court's Wedding Cake Ruling Means For Northwest

Jun 4, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrowly focused ruling Monday that favored Masterpiece Cakes, a Colorado bakery, which refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

While the court's 7-2 decision skirted the main legal arguments the case presented, the court's ruling sets the stage for two similar cases in the Northwest: one involving a Washington florist and another with a bakery owner in Oregon.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court could decide whether to hear the case involving the Washington flower shop, Arlene’s Flowers. That case has the potential to answer some of the larger questions the court avoided in the Colorado decision. The big issue is whether people can claim religious liberty and free speech as a reason for not serving same sex couples.

"The Supreme Court basically punted and said this case may very well be decided under different factual circumstances where you don't have a question about whether the commission was acting impartially," said Mat dos Santos, the legal director for the ACLU of Oregon.

While the Masterpiece Cakes ruling sidestepped the fundamental clash between religious freedom and civil rights, Northwest lawmakers used the ruling as an opportunity to decry discrimination.

Arlene's Flowers

Back in 2013, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed got married without the help of Arlene’s Flowers. They had asked their longtime local florist, Barronelle Stutzman, to do their wedding arrangements. Stutzman refused, citing her “relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The two men won several rounds in Washington state’s court system. Each time, Arlene’s Flowers lost, and appealed, most recently to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Emily Chiang, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said they wish the U.S. Supreme Court had gone further in its ruling Monday. But she said the decision doesn’t mean that the court will rule in Arlene’s Flowers’ favor as it did in the case of the Colorado bakery.

"The court very plainly makes it clear that businesses can not generally deny goods and services to gay people, much less for their weddings," Chiang said.

Chiang said you can’t be turned away for who you are, which is consistent with civil rights across the nation.

George Ahrend, one of the lawyers for Arlene’s Flowers, said he also views the Masterpiece Cakes decision as a narrow reading of the case. He said the court is recognizing the right to act on religious beliefs and express those beliefs.

“I don't think you can look at this opinion and say one way or another what’s going to happen next in the Arlene’s Flowers [case], other than to say the court endorsed some of the same arguments we’re making in Arlene’s Flowers and so that’s a hopeful sign," Ahrend said.

University of Washington Law School Professor Peter Nicolas said the high court’s swing voter, Justice Anthony Kennedy, wrote the majority opinion, which balances religious freedom and civil rights.

“I don't think that Justice Kennedy either wanted to undermine religious freedom, nor did he want to undermine gay rights. The gay rights side should chalk this up as a win," he said.

The high court’s ruling focused on disparaging comments about religion made by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Yet, some politicians pushed back against the idea that the court's ruling somehow would allow businesses to refuse people based on their sexual orientation.

“We’re not going to allow discrimination to worm itself back into the State of Washington because of this decision," Gov. Jay Inslee told OPB.

At a rally in downtown Portland organized by the nonprofit LGBT rights organization Basic Rights Oregon and the ACLU, Mayor Ted Wheeler said the Colorado case was "never about the cake." Rather, he said it was about treating everyone equally under the law.

"No one - including LGBTQ people - should be refused service just because of who they are," Wheeler said.

Sweet Cakes By Melissa

In 2013, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a bakery in Gresham, Oregon, refused to sell a wedding cake to a lesbian couple. The state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries later responded and hit the bakery with a $135,000 fine.

Jim Oleske, a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, told OPB's talk show, Think Out Loud, the Colorado case is more like the Oregon case than the Washington case.

“The Oregon case, I don’t think the majority decision in Masterpiece will end up deciding the Oregon case," Oleske said. "But there was a claim in the Oregon case of bias against the labor commissioner. It was a different type of bias claim.”

The now shuttered Sweet Cakes bakery was owned by Melissa and Aaron Klein. Like in the Colorado case, the Kleins said they refused to make a wedding cake for the lesbian couple because of their religious beliefs.

“We think this has direct application to the Kleins’ case because the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries was equally hostile to the Klein’s sincerely hostile religious beliefs when it ruled against them,” said Adam Gustafson, who represents the Kleins.

Gustafson cited a Facebook post by Oregon labor commissioner Brad Avakian. Gustafson argued it was prejudicial against the Kleins.

Others disagreed and said Avakian’s statements aren’t as disparaging as what the Colorado Civil Rights Commission said.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Avakian says the agencies “rulings have been consistent with Oregon public accommodations law and the United States Constitution.”

The Kleins have asked the Oregon Supreme Court to hear the case. But the court hasn’t said whether it will.

Reported from Richland, Washington and Portland.

Christy George, Austin Jenkins, OPB’s Molly Solomon and KUOW’s Derek Wang contributed to this report.

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