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Supreme Court decision provides little guidance on restaurants' rights of refusal

The high court decided a bakery could refuse service to a gay couple, but only because of the particulars of that case.
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a bakery could refuse service to a same-sex couple because of their sexual orientation, but provided little guidance to restaurants or other public businesses about when they could turn away customers because of objections to their lifestyle or sexual orientation.

The reasoning offered by the court was based narrowly on the facts of the particular case before it, from the date of the refused service to the level of the defendant’s skill. The baker, Jack Phillips, had been asked in 2012 to bake one of his highly prized cakes for the wedding of two men. He declined, saying his Christian faith prevented him from celebrating the union of two men.

The court accepted the assessment that Phillips' cakes are works of art. His attorney argued that forcing an artist to champion a viewpoint contrary to his own—in this case, that heterosexual and homosexual marriage were equal—was a violation of his right to free speech.

She also contended that forcing Phillips to violate the tenets of his faith was a denial of his religious freedom.

The court essentially agreed, though with enough buts, what-ifs and other qualifications to undermine the decision’s value as a precedent.

For instance, the decision, as written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, noted that Colorado has the authority to ban the denial of services or sale of goods to gay people because of their orientation. The law was less certain back in 2012, and merchants had more leeway to decide whether to accept or turn away a gay couple's business. In this particular instance, “The law must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion,” Kennedy wrote.

Noting how laws and jurisprudence have changed in the last six years, Kennedy raised the possibility of courts deciding in the future that assertions of religious rights are trumped by the legal protections afforded gays. But this was not that instance, said Kennedy, noting that lower courts had not shown sufficient respect for Phillips' faith.

The baker’s Masterpiece Cakeshop had previously declined to make at least a half-dozen wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

Kennedy noted the significance of Phillips not refusing all service to the betrothed couple. He had offered to sell them premade or standard cakes. His objection was solely to creating a cake from scratch.

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