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Masterpiece Baker Phillips Wins a Round in New Lawsuit Against Colorado Civil Rights Officials

Posted on: January 9th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips is back in court again, this time suing officials of Colorado’s Civil Rights agency and the state’s attorney general and governor to try to block the Commission from continuing a case against him for refusing to make a custom-designed cake to celebrate a transgender attorney’s celebration of the anniversary of her transition. On February 4, Senior U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel largely rejected a motion by defendants to dismiss the case, although he narrowed its scope somewhat.

For those coming in late to this ongoing drama: Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop were found by the Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals to have violated the state’s public accommodations law when he refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012 because of his religious objection to same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed those decisions in a 7-2 ruling last June 4, based on the Court’s conclusion that the state had not afforded Phillips a “neutral” forum to consider his 1st Amendment defense.

Part of the Court’s conclusion that the Commission was “hostile” to Phillips on religious grounds rested on the Commission’s treatment of a provocateur named William Jack. While the discrimination claim by a gay couple was pending before the Commission, Jack approached three Colorado bakeries that custom-decorate cakes, asking them to make cakes for him that “conveyed disapproval of same-sex marriage, along with religious text,” quoting here from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion for the Supreme Court. All the bakers turned him down, stating that they “objected to those cakes’ messages and would not create them for anyone.” Jack filed discrimination charges against the bakeries, but after investigating his charges, the Colorado Civil Rights Division found no “probable cause” that the statute was violated, and the Commission affirmed that determination.

The Supreme Court seized upon the Commission’s response to Jack’s provocation, saying that the Commission’s hostility was evident in “the difference in treatment between Phillips’ case and the cases of other bakers who objected to a requested cake on the basis of conscience and prevailed before the Commission.” The Civil Rights Division ruled in Phillips’ case that “any message the requested wedding cake would carry would be attributed to the customer, not the baker,” while “the Division did not address this point in any of the other cases with respect to the cakes depicting anti-gay marriage symbolism.” Justice Kennedy also critically noted that “the Division found no violation of the Act in the other cases in part because each bakery was willing to sell other products to the prospective customers” but the “Commission dismissed Phillips’ willingness to sell birthday cakes, shower cakes, cookies and brownies, to gay and lesbian customers as irrelevant.”

The Supreme Court had announced its decision to grant Jack Phillips’ petition for review on June 26, 2017 – an announcement that received widespread media coverage and apparently prompted Autumn Scardia, a transgender attorney, to take a leaf from William Jack’s book. She phoned Masterpiece and inquired about getting a cake with a blue exterior and a pink interior to “celebrate her transition from male to female.” Scardina said she wanted the cake for a birthday party she was planning. It was only when she described the color scheme and the reason for it that Phillips turned down the order, stating that he would not make a cake celebrating a gender transition for “any customer, no matter the customer’s protected characteristics.” In his current lawsuit, he alleges that he “offered to create a different custom cake for Scardina or to sell her any of the pre-make items available for purchase.” But she declined to order anything else.

Scardina filed a discrimination charge with the Division. Several weeks after the Supreme Court ruled on the first Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the Division issued a probable cause determination against Phillips for violating the public accommodations law by refusing Scardina’s cake order. While noting the religious reasons cited by Phillips for specifically not making a cake designed to celebrate a gender transition, due to his religious belief that a person’s sex is “an immutable God-given reality,” the Commission nonetheless concluded that “the refusal to provide service to Complainant was based on her transgender status.”

On October 2, 2018, the Commission filed a formal complaint against Phillips based on the Division’s finding, and set the case for a hearing. Anticipating this move, Phillips filed a complaint in federal court on August 14, 2018, which the defendants promptly moved to dismiss. Phillips charges that the state is out to get him, characterizing its actions as “unconstitutional bullying.” After the defendants’ dismissal motion and the Commission’s formal complaint were filed, Phillips filed an amended complaint to take account of these developments. The Commission’s hearing. The hearing has not yet taken place.

Phillips claims that the defendants’ interpretation of the public accommodations law violates his First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. He also makes a Due Process vagueness claim against the statute, attacking it on several grounds, including a structural charge against the statutory criteria for the appointment of Commission members by the governor, which require, among other things, that several members of the Commission be representative of minority communities protected by the anti-discrimination law. He also asserted an equal protection claim, focused again on the differential treatment cited by the Supreme Court in noting the Commission’s refusal to prosecute the bakers who had turned down William Jack’s order for “anti-same-sex marriage cakes.”

Phillips sought injunctions against the state officials forbidding them from interpreting and enforcing the statute against him. He also sought a judicial declaration about the violation of his constitutional rights, and compensatory, punitive and nominal damages against the Civil Rights Division’s Director, Aubrey Elenis, and the seven members of the Commission.

In ruling on the motion to dismiss, Judge Daniel found that none of the “abstention doctrines” that the federal courts have developed to determine whether to allow federal lawsuits to interfere with state administrative proceedings should apply in this case, and that Phillips had standing to bring this lawsuit, not only because of the proceedings ongoing against him, but also because he wanted to post a policy statement on his business’s website about the basis on which they would refuse to make custom-cakes, but was inhibited from doing so because a section of the public accommodations law states that businesses cannot publish discriminatory policies.

However, Daniel did find that Director Elenis and the individual Civil Rights Commissioners enjoy absolute immunity from personal liability for damages, accepting their argument that they are acting as prosecutors and adjudicators. He wrote that it is “well-established that prosecutors are absolutely immune for activities which are intimately associated with the judicial process such as initiating and pursuing” a prosecution. He found that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, whose rulings are binding on the district court in Colorado, has “extended absolute immunity to state administrative or executive officials serving in adjudicative, judicial, or prosecutorial capacities.”

Furthermore, the judge found that Governor John Hickenlooper should be dismissed as a defendant, since he played no direct role in enforcing the public accommodations law, so suit against him in his official capacity was barred by the 11th Amendment. Just in time, it seems, since Hickenlooper’s term ended a few days after the court issued it January 4 decision, with Governor Jared Polis taking office on January 8. This decision means that Polis, the state’s (and nation’s) first out gay man to be elected a governor, did not become a defendant in this lawsuit immediately on taking office!

However, the court refused to dismiss the Attorney General, Cynthia Coffman, from the case, finding that the attorney general’s role of representing the Commission in court did make that office potentially subject to injunctive relief. Once again, however, the timing was fortuitous, since Coffman’s term has also ended, as Phil Weiser took office as attorney general on January 8, and the defense of this case will be carried on by his office.

Of course, Phillips is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the right-wing Christian litigation group that represented him in appealing the wedding cake decision to the Supreme Court. Not coincidentally, ADF also represents Harris Funeral Homes, seeking Supreme Court review of the 6th Circuit’s decision that Harris violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when it fired a transgender funeral director, as well as anonymous plaintiffs who are asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 3rd Circuit’s decision rejecting a constitutional challenge to the Boyertown, Pennsylvania, school district’s transgender-affirmative facilities access policy. One of the best ways to keep up with some major cases in LGBT-related litigation is to periodically visit ADF’s website.

Supreme Court Will Consider Religious and Free Speech Exemptions to Anti-Discrimination Law in Colorado Wedding Cake Case

Posted on: June 26th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

On June 26 the United States Supreme Court granted a petition filed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay “religious” law firm, on behalf of Jack Phillips and his business, Masterpiece Cakeshop, to determine whether the Colorado Court of Appeals correctly denied Phillips’ claim that he is privileged under the 1st Amendment to refuse an order to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111 (cert. granted June 26, 2017).

The petition was filed last July 22, and had been listed for discussion during the Court’s conferences more than a dozen times. The addition of Donald Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, to fill a vacancy on the Court was likely the catalyst for a decision to grant review, although it the ultimate disposition of the case could heavily depend on the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the “swing justice” on the Court in cases involving LGBT issues.  However, in an interesting twist, one of the main precedents that stands in the way of a victory for Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop is an opinion written in 1990 by Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death led to Gorsuch’s appointment.

The petition asks the Court, in effect, to reverse or narrow its long-standing precedent, Employment Division v. Smith, in which Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that individuals do not have a constitutional right based on their religious beliefs to refuse to comply with “neutral” state laws of general application. Neutral state laws are those that do not directly concern religious beliefs or practices, but whose application may incidentally affect them.  In response to this decision, both Congress and many state governments have passed statutes allowing persons to claim religious exemptions from complying with statutes under certain circumstances.

The question which the Court will consider, as phrased by ADF in its petition, is: “Whether applying Colorado’s public accommodations law to compel Phillips to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment?”

The Court has addressed the free speech aspects of this issue in the past.  In Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston (1995), the Court ruled that a state’s public accommodation law would have to give way to the 1st Amendment expressive association rights of the organizers of Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, who refused to allow an LGBT group to march under its own banner in the parade.  The Court ruled unanimously, in an opinion by Justice David Souter, that a parade is a quintessential expressive activity, and the organizers of the parade have a right to exclude groups whose presence would convey a message that the parade organizers do not wish to convey.

By a bare 5-4 majority, the Court extended that ruling in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), in which Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the Court, holding that the Boy Scouts of America, like the Boston parade organizers, is an expressive association and could refuse to allow an openly gay man to serve as an assistant scoutmaster because this would communicate to its members and the public a view as to homosexuality that the BSA did not want to communicate.  The ruling sparked two dissenting opinions, sharply contesting the majority’s weighing of rights in allowing the Boy Scouts to discriminate and challenging the view that BSA could be characterized as an “expressive association.”

Interestingly, the winning parties in both of these cases have over time come to see the wisdom of allowing at least some LGBT people to participate in their activities.  The Boston parade organizers have allowed some LGBT groups to participate in their parade in recent years, and BSA voted to allow its local troops to permit participation by LGBT people as members and adult leaders, although troops sponsored by religious organizations have continued to exclude LGBT people in some places.

The Court has yet to return to the religious objection aspect of this case.  A few years ago it refused to review a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court holding that a wedding photographer did not have a 1st Amendment right to refuse to provide her services to a lesbian couple seeking photographic documentation of their commitment ceremony.  Since then, courts in several other states have rejected religious exemption claims by various businesses that provide wedding-related services, including a recent New York ruling refusing a religious exemption to a farm that had hosted and catered weddings.  The more recent Hobby Lobby case, in which the Supreme Court held that a closely-held corporation could refuse on religious grounds to cover certain contraceptive methods under its health care plan, was litigated in terms of a statutory exemption provided by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and thus was not grounded on a constitutional claim.

A recent appellate ruling by a Kentucky court, however, upheld the right of a company that makes custom t-shirts to refuse an order from a gay organization for shirts to publicize the organization’s Gay Pride festival.  The 2-1 ruling was premised on the court’s conclusion that the denial of services was not based on the sexual orientation of anybody, but the concurring judge also cited the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, while the dissenter found a clear violation of the a municipal anti-discrimination law and no right to a religious exemption.

In the case granted review by the Supreme Court, Charlie Craig and David Mullins were planning to go out-of-state to marry, because in 2012 Colorado did not yet allow same-sex marriages.  However, they planned to follow up with a celebration near their home in order to more easily involve their family and friends, and went to Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a cake for the occasion.  The owner, Jack Phillips, declined their order, citing his religious objection to same-sex marriage.  When Craig and Mullins publicized this refusal, they were offered a free wedding cake by another bakery which they accepted, but they also decided to file a charge of sexual orientation discrimination with the Colorado Civil Rights Division.  The Division ruled in their favor, approving an administrative law judge’s decision that rejected Phillips’s 1st Amendment defenses of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech and found that Phillips had violated the state’s statutory ban on sexual orientation discrimination by businesses.

ADF appealed the administrative ruling to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which rejected both of Phillips’ constitutional arguments.  The court held that baking and decorating a wedding cake is not speech or artistic expression, as Phillips had argued, and that the Commission’s order “merely requires that [Phillips] not discriminate against potential customers in violation of [the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act] and that such conduct, even if compelled by the government, is not sufficiently expressive to warrant First Amendment protections.”  The court deemed the Act to be a “neutral law of generally applicability,” and thus within the scope of the Supreme Court’s Employment Division v. Smith precedent.  Colorado does not have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that could arguably create a statutory exemption to the anti-discrimination statute.

Because the Supreme Court granted review on both the free speech and religious exercise claims, there might result a split decision by the Court.  If it wants to adhere to a broad view of Employment Division v. Smith, it can easily follow the route taken by various state courts that have refused to allow businesses to claim a constitutional religious exemption from complying with anti-discrimination laws.  Or, it could use this case to back away from the Employment Division holding or narrow it in some way.

The Court is unlikely to rule for Phillips on the free speech argument if it sticks with its precedents, since the recognized constitutional exception is for organizations or activities that have a primary or significant expressive purpose. Both Hurley and Dale involved non-profit organizations, not businesses, that were engaged in activities that the Court found (by only a narrow margin in the case of the Boy Scouts) to have strong expressive association claims.  It is unlikely that a business whose primary activity is selling cakes could make a similar claim.  But the Supreme Court can be full of surprises, and there have been significant changes in its membership since these cases were decided.  The Court might bow to the argument by ADF that people of strong religious convictions who wish to incorporate those convictions into their businesses have a right not to be compelled by the government to undertake activities that would express a view contrary to their religious beliefs.  This would potentially tear a big hole in the protection against discrimination provided by the public accommodations laws most of the states, and not just those that ban discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Colorado Court of Appeals’ decision will be defended before the Supreme Court by the state’s attorneys. Lambda Legal and One Colorado, with cooperating attorneys John McHugh and Anthony Giacomini of Denver-based Reilly Pozner LLP, filed an amicus brief in response to the petition.  Given the wide-ranging interest in the issues underlying this case, it is likely that the Court will receive a mountain of amicus briefs.  Oral argument will be held sometime next winter.