FAN 192.1 (First Amendment News) Thomas & Gorsuch discuss First Amendment expression claim in Colorado baker case

While Phillips rightly prevails on his free-exercise claim, I write separately to address his free-speech claim. The Court does not address this claim because it has some uncertainties about the record. — Justice Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas

Today the Supreme Court rendered its ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The vote in the case was 7-2 with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing for the majority and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor in dissent.

The majority opinion was grounded in a First Amendment free exercise claim tailored to the specific facts of the case involving some evdience of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s “impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating [the baker’s] objection. As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.” Given the basis of its ruling, the majority did not reach the baker’s First Amendment freedom of expression claims.

Writing separately, and joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in part and concurred in the judgment. Justice Gorsuch also authored a concurring opinion joined by Justice Samuel Alito.  Unlike the majority, Thomas and Gorsuch addressed the First Amendment free expression claim in their separate opinions.

Question: What are we to make of the fact that neither Chief Justice John Roberts nor Justice Samuel Alito signed onto Justice Thomas’s more expansive opinion?

Here, first, are some excerpts from Justice Thomas’s opinion:

  • Expressive Conduct: “The conduct that the Colorado Court of Appeals ascribed to Phillips—creating and designing custom wedding cakes—is expressive. Phillips considers himself an artist. The logo for Masterpiece Cakeshop is an artist’s paint palate with a paintbrush and baker’s whisk. Behind the counter Phillips has a picture that depicts him as an artist painting on a canvas. Phillips takes exceptional care with each cake that he creates—sketching the design out on paper, choosing the color scheme, creating the frosting and decorations, baking and sculpting the cake, decorating it, and delivering it to the wedding. . . . To [Mr. Phillips], a wedding cake inherently communicates that “a wedding has oc­curred, a marriage has begun, and the couple should be celebrated.” App. 162. Wedding cakes do, in fact, communicate this message. . . . Accordingly, Phillips’ creation of custom wedding cakes is expressive. The use of his artistic talents to create a well-recognized symbol that celebrates the beginning of a marriage clearly communicates a message—certainly more so than nude dancing, Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., or flying a plain red flag, Stromberg v. California . . .”
  • No Evidence of Communicating a Message Required: “The dissent faults Phillips for not ‘submitting . . . evidence’ that wedding cakes communicate a message. Post, at 2, n. 1 (opinion of GINSBURG, J.). But this requirement finds no support in our prece­dents. This Court did not insist that the parties submit evidence detailing the expressive nature of parades, flags, or nude dancing.”

  • Compelled Affirmation Prohibited: “Forcing Phillips to make custom wedding cakes for same-sex marriages re­ quires him to, at the very least, acknowledge that same- sex weddings are “weddings” and suggest that they should be celebrated—the precise message he believes his faith forbids. The First Amendment prohibits Colorado from requiring Phillips to “bear witness to [these] fact[s],”Hurley, 515 U. S., at 574, or to “affir[m] . . . a belief with which [he] disagrees,” id., at 573.”
  • Strict Scrutiny Standard: “Because Phillips’ conduct (as described by the Colorado Court of Appeals) was expressive, Colorado’s public- accommodations law cannot penalize it unless the law withstands strict scrutiny. Although this Court some­ times reviews regulations of expressive conduct under the more lenient test articulated in O’Brien, that test does not apply unless the government would have punished the conduct regardless of its expressive component. See, e.g., Barnes, 501 U. S., at 566–572 (applying O’Brien to evalu­ate the application of a general nudity ban to nude danc­ ing); Clark, 468 U. S., at 293 (applying O’Brien to evaluate the application of a general camping ban to a demonstra­tion in the park). Here, however, Colorado would not be punishing Phillips if he refused to create any custom wedding cakes; it is punishing him because he refuses to create custom wedding cakes that express approval of same-sex marriage. In cases like this one, our precedents demand “ ‘the most exacting scrutiny.’ ” Johnson, 491 U. S., at 412; accord, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 561 U. S. 1, 28 (2010).”
  • “The Court of Appeals did not address whether Colo­ rado’s law survives strict scrutiny, and I will not do so in the first instance.”
  • Obergefell no Bar to Free Expression Claim: [T]he fact that this Court has now decided Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), [does not] somehow diminish Phillips’ right to free speech. “It is one thing . . . to con­clude that the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage; it is something else to portray everyone who does not share [that view] as bigoted” and unentitled toexpress a different view. Id., at ___ (ROBERTS, C. J., dis­senting). This Court is not an authority on matters of conscience, and its decisions can (and often should) be criticized. The First Amendment gives individ­uals the right to disagree about the correctness of Obergefell and the morality of same-sex marriage. Obergefell itself emphasized that the traditional understanding of marriage “long has been held—and continues to be held— in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world.” Id., at ___ (majority opinion). If Phillips’ continued adherence to that under­ standing makes him a minority after Obergefell, that is all the more reason to insist that his speech be protected.”

  • Limiting Reach of Obergefell: “In Obergefell, I warned that the Court’s decision would “inevitabl[y] . . . come into conflict” with religious liberty, “as individuals . . . are confronted with demands to partic­ ipate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” 576 U. S., at ___ (dissenting opinion) (slip op., at 15). This case proves that the conflict has already emerged. Because the Court’s decision vindicates Phillips’ right to free exercise, it seems that religious liberty has lived to fight another day. But, in future cases, the free­dom of speech could be essential to preventing Obergefell from being used to “stamp out every vestige of dissent” and “vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” Id., at ___ (ALITO, J., dissenting).”

Next, here are some excerpts from Justice Gorsuch’s opinion:

  • Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a concurrence joined by Justice Samuel Alito

    Cakes Without Words Can Convey a Message “To suggest that cakes with words convey a message but cakes without words do not—all in order to excuse the bakers in Mr. Jack’s case while penalizing Mr. Phillips—is irrational. Not even the Commission or court of appeals purported to rely on that distinction. Imagine Mr. Jack asked only for a cake with a symbolic expression against same-sex marriage rather than a cake bearing words conveying the same idea. Surely the Commission would have approved the bakers’ intentional wish to avoid participating in that message too. Nor can anyone reasonably doubt that a wedding cake without words conveys a message. Words or not and whatever the exact design, it celebrates a wedding, and if the wedding cake is made for a same-sex couple it celebrates a same-sex wedding.”

  • Making Cakes vs Conveying a Message:  “Suggesting that this case is only about ‘wedding cakes’—and not a wed- ding cake celebrating a same-sex wedding—actually points up the problem. At its most general level, the cake at issue in Mr. Phillips’s case was just a mixture of flour and eggs; at its most specific level, it was a cake celebrating the same-sex wedding of Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullins. We are told here, however, to apply a sort of Goldilocks rule: describing the cake by its ingredients is too general; un- derstanding it as celebrating a same-sex wedding is too specific; but regarding it as a generic wedding cake is just right. The problem is, the Commission didn’t play with the level of generality in Mr. Jack’s case in this way.”

Note: The Gorsuch opinion, unlike the Thomas one (in which Gorsuch joined), did not mention Obergefell.  

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