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Bakeries are at the center of the Supreme Court’s next big case on LGBTQ rights

The key question: Does a baker’s religious belief trump a state’s civil rights protections for LGBTQ people?

A wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

The next big Supreme Court case on LGBTQ rights also involves cake.

On Monday, the nation’s highest court announced it will hear a case about whether laws that shield LGBTQ people from discrimination violate Americans’ religious rights.

This particular case, known as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, goes back to 2012. Back then, Jack Phillips, the owner of the Colorado-based bakery Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to make a wedding cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig, a same-sex couple. In court, Phillips’s attorneys argued that making him bake a wedding cake for the same-sex couple would be like forcing a black baker to make a cake with a white supremacist message.

But a state commission and courts disagreed, arguing that Colorado civil rights law — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations, such as bakeries — trumps Phillips’s religious beliefs.

The case is emblematic of a broader trend that’s taken off since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015: Conservative and religious activists have increasingly argued that while marriage equality may be the law of the land, they shouldn’t be required to offer services for those ceremonies — because it violates rights to religious expression and free speech. Similar cases involved photographers, florists, and other bakeries.

It may seem strange that these otherwise uncontroversial settings have become a battleground for LGBTQ rights. But this isn’t so strange in American politics: Battles for civil rights in the US have often involved showdowns in these types of businesses, such as the Greensboro sit-ins, in an effort to stop department store, restaurant, and other business owners from discriminating.

Under most states’ laws, it’s already legal for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ customers and employees, because there are no civil rights protections in place for sexual orientation or gender identity.

But some states do have civil rights protections in place for LGBTQ people — and a Supreme Court ruling could dictate how far these laws go. If the Court ruled in favor of the Colorado baker, it would allow discrimination even in states where anti-LGBTQ discrimination is banned — as long as someone offers a religious reason to justify such prejudice. But if the Court ruled against Phillips, it would strike a blow against the claim that religious beliefs offer a legal pathway for discrimination.

So depending on how the Court rules, this ruling could either solidify or weaken LGBTQ rights in America.

Supreme Court or not, most states don’t ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination

Under most states’ laws and federal law, LGBTQ people aren’t explicitly protected from discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations. This means that a person can be fired from a job, evicted from a home, or kicked out of a business just because an employer, landlord, or business owner doesn’t approve of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

It’s in the states that do prohibit such discrimination where the Supreme Court’s ruling could have an impact. The Court is expected to address whether legal protections for LGBTQ people trump someone’s rights to religious expression and free speech, which are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and compel, say, a baker to do things that he may religiously oppose.

If the Court rules in favor of Phillips, it would be a huge blow to LGBTQ civil rights laws — and not just in the context of bakeries. It could also open a legal path to anti-LGBTQ discrimination in multiple settings, from the workplace to housing, by letting business owners — even in states where such discrimination is prohibited — cite their religious beliefs to discriminate.

Such a ruling would, in effect, create a massive loophole in existing civil rights laws for LGBTQ people. Legal protections that only exist in a minority of states would therefore become even weaker.

It’s not clear how the Supreme Court will rule just yet. The Court is expected to hear the case in its next term, which begins in October.

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