Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (Sup. Ct. June 4, 2018), is about discrimination in public accommodations, not employment discrimination. Moreover, the Supreme Court decided the case on narrow grounds—the Court ruled against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission because the Commission had voiced remarks showing a disdain for religion. The Commission did not act as a neutral decision-maker in the dispute between Jack Phillips, the Christian owner of a bakery, and two gay men who asked Mr. Phillips to make them a wedding cake.
Therefore, it might seem that this case would have little to do with employment cases. However, employers frequently find themselves in the same position as the Colorado Civil Rights Commission—arbitrating disputes between two employees each of whom has a protected status, but whose interests clash. These disputes can relate to race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, or any other protected status.
Let’s just stick with religion—the primary issue in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. I once dealt with an employment discrimination claim in which a woman was fired after she repeatedly answered the phone of her retail employer “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . .” Needless to say, the non-Christian customers of this store (as well as many of the Christian customers) were offended to be greeted in this fashion.
At the time, the standard for religious accommodation in employment discrimination cases was whether accommodating the employee’s religious practices resulted in more than a “de minimis” burden on the employer. We successfully argued that offending our customers was more than a “de minimis” burden.
I still think that would be the result today. However, the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision makes it clear that religious practices are to be taken seriously.
In the case I described, we talked to the woman’s pastor, who told us (and her) that her church did not require her to answer the phone “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” It’s clear under later precedents, however, that it doesn’t matter what the religious institution says, if the individual holds a sincere belief. Thus, this woman’s firmly held belief that she was called to answer the phone this way gave her protected rights, whether it was part of church doctrine or not.
And if we had belittled her in some way because of her belief or because of how she practiced her religion—as the Supreme Court found that Colorado Civil Rights Commission had belittled the cake baker—we might well have been liable for religious discrimination.
Justice Kennedy said in the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop,
“The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decisionmaker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided.”
Moreover, the Court focused on how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission treated Mr. Phillips differently than other bakers who refused to make cakes with messages opposing gay marriage—those bakers were allowed to refuse customers with whom they disagreed, while the Commission had required Mr. Phillips to bake a cake supporting an occasion his religious beliefs caused him to oppose.
As Justice Kennedy said,
“these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
This is a tall order, but deference and courtesy on all sides is more likely to lead to a positive outcome than hostility and ridicule.
It is never easy to resolve situations when two protected interests clash. For me, the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision reemphasizes the importance of treating all interests with respect. At the end of the day, employers must choose sides, just as the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had to choose a side in this case. But all sides in the dispute should be heard and treated with courtesy and tolerance.
It would have been easy for my client to ridicule the employee who answered a business phone with an overtly religious message. But it would have been wrong. Just as it was wrong for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to ridicule Jack Phillips and his beliefs.
When have you had to resolve a situation in which various employees’ protected rights clashed?