News & Insights

DiscriminationAugust 23, 2018by Stanton LawReligious Accommodation: Business owners learn it’s not quite a piece of cake

A case involving a gay couple who sued a baker who—citing religious grounds—refused to bake the couple’s wedding cake has made headlines nationwide.

by Manori de Silva

Business and Religion

There has been widespread media coverage of a Colorado case involving a gay couple who sued a baker who—citing religious grounds—refused to bake the couple’s wedding cake. Headlines around the Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. versus the Colorado Civil Rights Commission case have claimed that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the baker, while others believe it was a victory for gay rights advocates. The truth is less obvious, and business owners relying on the sound bites do so at their peril.

Did the Supreme Court rule in favor of the baker?

Before the case reached the Supreme Court, the gay couple filed a discrimination complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC). The essence of the Supreme Court ruling was the CCRC didn’t take seriously the sincerity of the bakery owner’s stated religious beliefs—based on statements that CCRC members made during the investigation. In other words, the Supreme Court concluded the CCRC conducted an unfair investigation because it acted in a hostile—rather than a neutral—manner about the bakery owner’s professed religious beliefs.

Does this change anything for the way employers should handle discrimination?

Not really. Employers still have to follow federal and state discrimination laws. What the ruling did not do was 1) give a carte blanche to employees to demand accommodation of their beliefs or 2) give a carte blanche to business owners to discriminate against gay people based on religious grounds.

Many courts do recognize discrimination based on sexual orientation as a form of unlawful gender discrimination. Employers shouldn’t start granting every employee request to accommodate their religious beliefs by applying a lower standard than before. If, for example, an employer grants an employee’s request to be excluded from assignments involving gay colleagues based on religious beliefs, the employer remains at risk of a discrimination lawsuit because it may have created a hostile work environment where gay employees no longer feel welcome. Nor should business owners start refusing to provide services to gay people in light of this ruling because non-discrimination laws still apply.

If the ruling didn’t really change much, why was there so much fuss about it?

Although the case was heralded as a long-awaited chance for clarity on this difficult balancing act, the Supreme Court didn’t actually rule whether accommodating religious freedom trumps protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. It’s saved that battle for another day.

Because of the criticism of the CCRC’s handling of the investigation at a state level, it can appear on the surface to have been a ruling that religious beliefs take precedence over sexual discrimination, but, as explained above, the underlying takeaway is that sexual orientation protections remain intact. Had the CCRC handled the investigation correctly, the Supreme Court likely would have ruled the bakery owner acted unlawfully.

Contact an Atlanta business attorney

If you would like to learn more about your religious accommodation obligations to your customers and employers, Stanton Law can help. Our experienced Atlanta business lawyers are committed to helping business owners, managers, and entrepreneurs remain focused on growing their companies and implementing their ideas. Call us today at 404-531-2341 or contact Atlanta business attorney Manori de Silva directly.