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Federal Court Ruling on “Religious Exemptions” from Anti-Discrimination Laws on Same-Sex Weddings May Preview Supreme Court Decision

Posted on: September 25th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Chief Judge John R. Tunheim of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota ruled in Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey, 2017 WL 4179899, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153014 (D. Minn., Sept. 20, 2017), that for-profit businesses do not enjoy a constitutional right to refuse to provide their services for same-sex weddings on the same basis that they provide services for different-sex weddings.  Turning back a case brought by the anti-gay religious litigation organization, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Judge Tunheim issued a comprehensive ruling that may provide a preview of what the U.S. Supreme Court will say in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case from Colorado during its forthcoming term, at least regarding the 1st Amendment issues common to both of the cases.

ADF immediately announced that it will appeal the court’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Judge Tunheim’s ruling is particularly significant because it is the first by a federal court to address this issue. Since 2013, several state appellate courts have ruling against such exemptions from compliance with state anti-discrimination laws, rejecting appeals by defendants who sought to overturn rulings against them by state human rights agencies in cases involving wedding photographers, florists, bakers, and wedding venues.  In this case, however, a videography business that claimed to be planning to expand into the wedding video business sought an advance declaration from the federal court that they would be constitutionally protected if they were threatened with prosecution under Minnesota’s ban on public accommodations discrimination because of sexual orientation.

This issue has previously avoided litigation in the federal courts because there is no federal law prohibiting discrimination because of sex or sexual orientation by businesses providing goods or services to the public. When “sex” was added as a prohibited ground of discrimination through a floor amendment to the pending Civil Rights Act in Congress in 1964, the amendment was directed solely to the employment discrimination section of the bill.  The public accommodations section was not amended to include “sex”.  The Equality Act bill first introduced in Congress two years ago would add both “sex” and “sexual orientation” to that part of the Civil Rights Act.

The state rulings all came in cases where businesses were being prosecuted under a state law. Because these are local businesses operating in the same jurisdiction where the plaintiffs live, there was no basis for the defendants to remove them to federal court, since the federal constitutional arguments were raised as defenses, and federal “removal” jurisdiction is based either on diversity of citizenship of the parties or a federal question being raised by the plaintiff in the complaint.

This case was brought by ADF on behalf of Carl and Angel Larsen and their company, Telescope Media Group, which specializes in producing videos for a fee. They are interested in expanding their business to include wedding videos.  They strongly oppose same-sex marriage, and one of their goals in expanding their business is to propagate their view that only a marriage between a man and a woman is appropriate by including in every contract they make a provision by which the couple purchasing the video gives Telescope Media the right to provide public access to the video through their website and postings on social media.  Thus, their mission in expanding into the wedding video business is not just to make money but also to promote different-sex marriage, which they consider to be an institution that is endangered by social changes such as the marriage equality movement.  They also want to be able to include a notice on their website that they do not provide video services for same-sex marriages.

The Minnesota public accommodations law was amended in 1993 to add “sexual orientation” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. After Minnesota’s legislature enacted a marriage equality law in 2013, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) published an “interpretive guidance” for businesses covered by the law, stating clearly that the state law “does not exempt individuals, businesses, nonprofits, or the secular business activities of religious entities from non-discrimination laws based on religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage.”  The guidance makes clear that people denied services by such businesses could file discrimination charges with the agency, which could result in penalties for violation of the law.

ADF alleged in its complaint that Telescope Media has already been contacted by at least one same-sex couple seeking video services for their wedding, but they were told that Telescope Media does not do wedding videos. This is legal, since they are not discriminating between same-sex and different-sex couples.  They claim they want to get into this potentially lucrative business, but are concerned about exposing themselves to legal liability, and seek the shelter of a declaratory judgment that they are privileged to turn down same-sex wedding business.

ADF came up with seven legal theories in support of their claim to constitutional protection, based on the 1st and 14th Amendments. They claimed that any legal requirement that they must provide services to same-sex couples would violate their rights to freedom of speech, expressive association, free exercise of religion, equal protection of the laws, and both procedural and substantive due process.  Their freedom of speech argument subdivides into the freedom to advertise their wedding video business as available only to different-sex couples, and their freedom not to be compelled to produce wedding videos that celebrate same-sex marriages and thus communicate a message of approval that contradicts their religious-inspired views.  The court rejected their argument that under the Minnesota law they could be compelled to display publicly any same-sex marriage videos that they might produce.

Judge Tunheim carefully and systematically rejected all of their arguments, citing extensively to U.S. Supreme Court decisions dealing with comparable situations. Before tackling the substantive issues, he had to deal with whether this lawsuit was an attempt to get an advisory opinion, which is beyond the jurisdiction of federal courts.  In this case, the fact that the MDHR has announced in advance its view that declining same-sex marriage business would violate the Human Rights Act helped to convince the court that prosecution of Telescope Media if it implemented its business plan was not merely theoretical.  If they have a constitutional right, the existence of the law and the agency’s intention to enforce it back their claim that they are being deterred from potentially exercising a constitutional right by expanding their business.  Thus, Tunheim rejected the argument by the state’s attorneys that the court had no jurisdiction over the case, since there is a real “case or controversy,” not a purely hypothetical case.

Turning to the merits, however, Judge Tunheim agreed with the growing body of state court appellate decisions that have rejected these constitutional arguments, for all the reasons that have been cited in those cases.

The court found that the MDHR is not a content-based regulation of speech, does not target religion, is subject only to intermediate scrutiny under 1st and 14th Amendment principles, and is sustained by the state’s important interest in preventing discrimination by businesses providing goods and services to the public.

Judge Tunheim rejected ADF’s argument that requiring a business to make wedding videos for same-sex couples if they make them for different-sex couples would violate the prohibition against government-compelled speech.   “Where a business provides a ‘conduit’ that allows others to pay for speech,” as in the case where the business makes an expressive product like a video for monetary compensation, “strict scrutiny is usually unnecessary because there is ‘little risk’ of compelled speech or that the public will attribute the message to that of the speaker,” he wrote.  “Further, courts generally do not find compelled speech where the speaker may easily disclaim the message of its customers.”

“The law does not compel the Larsens to speak a specific government message,” he continued, “unlike the message on the license plate in Wooley or the words of the pledge of allegiance in Barnette,” referring to cases where the Supreme Court held that a state cannot compel a person to display a political message on his license plate or to speak the flag salute against his will.  “The law does not dictate how the Larsens carry out any of their creative decisions regarding filming and editing.  While the law does incidentally require wedding videographers to make videos they might not want to make, the concerns undergirding the application of the compelled speech doctrine to instances of hosting another’s message are immaterial.”

At the heart of his analysis was the simple proposition that “speech-for-hire is commonly understood to reflect the views of the customer. Weddings are expressive events showcasing the messages and preference of the people getting married and attendees, who do things like speak, dress, and decorate in certain ways.  A video of a wedding depicts this expressive event, and while videographers may exercise creative license to fashion such a video, the videographer is a ‘conduit’ for communication of the speech and expression taking place at the wedding.”

Further, he pointed out, the Larsens can always post an announcement on their website stating that they are complying with the law by making videos of same-sex weddings, but that they are opposed to same-sex marriage. This sets their case apart from Hurley, the Supreme Court case holding that Massachusetts could not compel parade organizers to include a gay group if the organizers did not want to send a gay rights message through their parade.  Finally, he pointed out, making wedding videos for same-sex couples would not impede the Larsens’ ability to propagate their own message.  They would not be required to exhibit these videos on their website or place them on social media, as the court found that the MDHR would not be interpreted to impose such a requirement.

The court held that the ability of the MDHR to decide whom to prosecute under the statute did not destroy its content-neutral character, and that requiring Telescope Media to afford equal access to its services for same-sex weddings did not violate its right of expressive association. Indeed, ADF’s argument on this issue would undermine all anti-discrimination laws, were a court to accept the argument that every interaction with a potential customer could be avoided on grounds of “forced association.”  Historically-mind people may recall that then-Professor Robert Bork opposed the public accommodations provisions of the proposed Civil Rights Act in 1964 by describing the proposition that forcing businesses to provide services to people of color as one of “surpassing ugliness” because it would force people into unwanted personal associations.  These sorts of views led to the defeat of Bork’s nomination by President Reagan to the Supreme Court in 1987.

Because the judge found the Minnesota Human Rights Act to be content-neutral as far as religion goes, it easily rejected the idea that evenhanded application of the law would constitute a violation of free exercise, and it similarly rejected the argument that the law imposed an “unconstitutional condition” on the Larsen’s ability to conduct business in Minnesota. Because the law applied to all videography businesses, there was no viable Equal Protection claim.  Similarly, there was no viable procedural due process claim since the law’s prohibition was not unduly vague, and its use of the phrase “legitimate business purposes” to describe circumstances under which a business could refuse to provide a service to a consumer had a well-established legal meaning that would not leave reasonable people guessing as to the scope of their legal obligations.

Finally, having found that the law did not unconstitutionally abridge any of the Larsen’s substantive constitutional rights, the court easily concluded that it did not violate the 14th Amendment’s substantive due process protection for individual liberty. The court found that there is no recognized “fundamental right to work or operate a business free from regulations that one dislikes.  Absent some authority to the contrary, the Court declines to expand the reach of substantive due process to these facts, as the doctrine is ‘reserved for truly egregious and extraordinary cases,’” citing several U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the scope of substantive due process doctrine.

Judge Tunheim found that the state’s attorneys had “met their burden to demonstrate that Counts I-VII in the Amended Complaint all fail as a matter of law,” so there is nothing left to litigate and the court granted the state’s motion to dismiss the complaint.

ADF’s appeal to the 8th Circuit is unlikely to result in a quick decision, because the Supreme Court will soon schedule oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which presents many of the same issues.  This is an appeal of a ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals that the Cakeshop and its proprietor, Jack Philips, violated the state’s human rights law by refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious objections to same-sex marriages.  The hearing will probably take place later this year, with a decision expected in the spring of 2018.

The 8th Circuit may decide to follow the same procedure it followed in 2014 and 2015 when it received state appeals from district court marriage equality rulings while a similar case from the 6th Circuit was pending in the Supreme Court. The 8th Circuit put the appeals “on hold” to see what the Supreme Court would do, and then after the Obergefell ruling it simply followed the Supreme Court’s lead, as it would be required to do by precedent.

However, because ADF has alleged various legal theories that were not advanced in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, a Supreme Court ruling in that case may not definitively answer all the questions raised in Telescope Media, so it is possible that the 8th Circuit will find this case different enough to justify going forward without waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling.

 

The Colorado Wedding Cake Case

Posted on: December 8th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

A Colorado Administrative Law Judge ruled on December 6, 2013, that a bakery had violated the state’s public accommodations law when its owner refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay male couple on July 19, 2012.

Colorado does not have same-sex marriage, and only enacted a civil union law open to same-sex couples early in 2013.  Back in 2012, however, Coloradans Charlie Craig and David Mullins planned to get married in Massachusetts and then have a big celebration event for family and friends back home.  Accompanied by Charlie’s mom, they went to Masterpiece Cakeshop, which sells wedding cakes, and sat down with the proprietor, Jack Phillips, at the “cake consulting table.”  According to the factual findings in the opinion by ALJ Robert N. Spencer, “They introduced themselves as ‘David’ and ‘Charlie’ and said that they wanted a wedding cake for ‘our wedding.'”  Phillips immediately said no, he doesn’t make wedding cakes for same-sex weddings.  “I’ll make you birthday cakes,” he said, “shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.”  Without any further discussion, David and Charlie and Charlie’s mom got up and left, went to another bakery, and make their cake arrangements without incident.  The next day, Charlie’s mom called Phillips, who told her that he refused to make a wedding cake for David and Charlie because of his religious beliefs and because Colorado does not recognize same-sex marriages.

Although Charlie and David got their wedding cake, they felt humiliated by their experience with Phillips and decided to file a discrimination complaint to establish that his actions were unlawful.  The Civil Rights Commission sided with Charlie and David, ruling that Phillips violated their statutory rights.  When Phillips rejected that ruling, the case was referred for trial before an administrative judge.   As an administrative judge, Spencer does not have authority to declare statutes unconstitutional, but he does have authority to determine whether the application of a statute in a particular case violates the constitutional rights of the defendant.

Judge Spencer found, based on Phillips’ testimony, that he is a practicing Christian who believes that “the Bible is the inspired word of God, that its accounts are literally true, and that its commands are binding on him.”  He finds in the story of Adam and Eve and in a passage from Mark 10:6-9 (NIV) that only different-sex couples can marry.  “Phillips also believes,” wrote Spencer, “that the Bible commands him to avoid doing anything that would displease God, and not to encourage sin in any way.  Phillips believes that decorating cakes is a form of art and creative expression, and that he can honor God through his artistic talents.  Phillips believes that if he uses his artistic talents to participate in same-sex weddings by creating a wedding cake, he will be displeasing God and acting contrary to the teachings of the Bible.”

Phillips did not contest that his bakery is a public accommodation subject to the state’s anti-discrimination law, but he argued in defense that the law could not be applied in such a way as to violate his 1st Amendment rights of freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.  His bakery is incorporated but wholly owned by him, and he claims for his business the same 1st Amendment rights that he enjoys.  Judge Spencer pointed out that at least for now in the states comprising the federal 10th Circuit, which includes Colorado, family-owned closely-held corporations do enjoy 1st Amendment free exercise of religion rights (as a result of a 10th Circuit decision that the Supreme Court recently agreed to review), and the Supreme Court held several years ago in the notorious Citizens United case that corporations have 1st Amendment free speech rights.  Thus, Phillips argued, he should enjoy immunity from this discrimination charge on 1st Amendment grounds.  In effect, Phillips was arguing that the 1st Amendment protects businesses and individuals from having to comply with anti-discrimination laws if their personal beliefs based on religion would be violated by compliance with the law.

In addition, Phillips argued that he did not actually discriminate because of David and Charlie’s sexual orientation, and thus could not be found to have violated the statute.  He said that he would be happy to do business with them, so long as it didn’t involve a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.  He testified he would also refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple to celebrate a civil union, so his ground of objection is not really that Colorado does not recognize same-sex marriages, but rather that he feels that selling a cake for any celebration of a same-sex relationship would be state-compelled speech that violates his freedom of speech, as well as forcing him to act in conflict with his religious beliefs.

Judge Spencer first rejected Phillips’ argument that his refusal to sell the wedding cake was not sexual orientation discrimination.  “The salient feature distinguishing same-sex weddings from heterosexual ones is the seuxla orientation of its participants,” he wrote.  “Only same-sex couples engage in same-sex weddings.  Therefore, it makes little sense to argue that refusal to provide a cake to a same-sex couple for use at their wedding is not ‘because of’ their sexual orientation.”  Drawing a telling analogy, he wrote, “If Respondents’ argument was correct, it would allow a business that served all races to nonetheless refuse to serve an interracial couple because of the business owner’s bias against interracial marriage,” but this kind of theory was refuted by the Supreme Court in 1983 in Bob Jones University v. United States, where the Court upheld the IRS action in revoking the university’s tax exempt status because it denied admission to interracial couples in violation of laws forbidding discrimination because of race.

On the free speech claim, Spencer rejected Phillips’ argument that “preparing a wedding case is necessarily a medium of expression amounting to protected ‘speech,’ or that compelling Respondents to treat same-sex and heterosexual couples equally is the equivalent of forcing Respondents to adhere to ‘an ideological point of view.'”  Spencer distinguished between wedding cakes and “saluting the flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto,” all forms of conduct that have been found to constitute protected speech.  Spencer noted that Phillips refused to do business with David and Charlie without any discussion about how the cake would be decorated or what might be written on it.  “For all Phillips knew,” wrote Spencer, “Complainants might have wanted a nondescript cake that would have been suitable for consumption at any wedding.”  In a footnote, Phillips mentioned that the cake they had eventually obtained from another bakery had a “filling with rainbow colors,” but questioned whether that could be seen as some sort of endorsement of same-sex marriage by the baker.  Spencer characterized Phillips’ attempt to elevate making a wedding cake to the symbolic level of a compelled flag salute as an argument that “trivializes the right to free speech.”

Finally, Spencer rejected Phillips’ free exercise of religion argument.  He said that this case is not about the government trying to regulate what Phillips believes, but rather a regulation of commercial conduct.  “The types of conduct the United States Supreme Court has found to be beyond government control typically involve activities fundamental to the individual’s religious belief, that do not adversely affect the rights of others, and that are not outweighed by the state’s legitimate interests in promoting health, safety and general welfare,” Spencer commented, and cited a list of Supreme Court cases upholding neutral laws that incidentally regulate conduct, where the conduct involves some religious belief.  “Respondent’s refusal to provide a cake for Complainants’ same-sex wedding is distinctly the type of conduct that the Supreme Court has repeatedly found subject to legitimate regulation,” he asserted, mentioning that the Supreme Court itself had ruled that laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination by public accommodations have specifically been mentioned by the Supreme Court as legitimate.   The Supreme Court has ruled that a valid law that is neutral with respect to religion and generally applicable will be upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.  The Colorado public accommodations law meets that test.

As an administrative judge, Spencer does not have authority to impose fines or penalties.  Upon finding that Masterpiece Cakeshop and Phillips had violated the law, his remedy was to issue a “cease and desist order” and take such other corrective action as is deemed appropriate by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  If Phillips appeals this ruling, it might get to a stage where he would incur financial liability, however.

The ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project and the ACLU Foundation of Colorado and attorneys from King & Greisen, LLC, represented the complainants at the hearing before ALJ Spencer.  Phillips enjoys legal support from Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that specializes in opposing gay rights under the guise of preserving the 1st Amendment rights of those who discriminate against gay people.   Given ADF’s participation, it is likely this ruling will be appealed.

The Colorado bakery case is one of only several contesting the applicability of public accommodation laws to businesses that want to avoid providing goods and services for same-sex ceremonies.  In Washington State, litigation proceeds against a florist shop, and in New Mexico, the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that a wedding photographer had violated the state’s public accommodations law by declining to provide photographic services for a same-sex commitment ceremony.  The Supreme Court has received a petition to review the New Mexico case.