Just over a year ago, the justices issued a narrow ruling in the case of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker and devout Christian who refused to create a custom cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding festivities. The Supreme Court’s decision for Phillips rested primarily on the rationale that the Colorado administrative agency that ruled against Phillips treated him unfairly, because it was too hostile to his religious faith. Today the court declined to take up a question that it left open in Phillips’ case: Can sincerely held religious beliefs trump neutral laws that apply to everyone? Instead, the justices sent the case of an Oregon couple who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding celebration back to the state court for another look in light of Phillips’ case.
The couple, Melissa and Aaron Klein, owned a bakery in the Portland suburbs. Six years ago, Rachel Bowman-Cryer and her mother, Cheryl, visited the bakery to order a wedding cake for Rachel’s upcoming marriage. But the Kleins wouldn’t take the order, explaining that the bakery did not make cakes for same-sex ceremonies because they believe that a marriage is limited to the union between a man and a woman.
Rachel and her fiancée complained to a state administrative agency. They argued that the Kleins’ refusal to make a cake for them violated state laws that prohibit businesses that serve the public from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The agency agreed and awarded them $135,000. A state appeals court upheld that ruling. The state court rejected the Kleins’ argument that applying the state’s anti-discrimination laws to them violates the First Amendment by compelling them to “express a message—a celebration of same-sex marriage—with which they disagree.”
Last fall the Kleins went to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to take up their case. After considering the Kleins’ case at 10 consecutive conferences, the justices today sent the case back to the Oregon Court of Appeals, for that court to reconsider it in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Phillips’ case. The court’s order was a terse one that did not indicate exactly how Phillips’ case might affect the ruling in the Kleins’ case or why it had taken so long for the justices to act on the Kleins’ case. The order may have allowed the justices to avoid tackling this contentious issue for now, but they may not be able to dodge the question forever: Earlier this month, the Washington Supreme Court reaffirmed its ruling against a florist who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. The U.S. Supreme Court had sent that case back to the state court last year in the wake of its ruling in Phillips’ case; lawyers for the florist have already announced that they intend to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices did not act on the three petitions for review filed by the Trump administration, seeking review of decisions by lower courts blocking the federal government from ending the program known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to apply for protection from deportation and (among other things) for permission to work in this country. The petitions, which the justices had considered at their conference last week for the first time since January, have already been distributed for the justices to consider again at their conference on Thursday.
We expect orders from Thursday’s conference on Monday, June 24, at 9:30 a.m.