Normally, when the Supreme Court issues decisions about abortion and gay rights, it’s a big deal for the country at large. But today is different. While the Court did decide two cases today about those issues, ignore any headlines and reactions blowing these cases out of proportion. These decisions aren’t what they seem.
First, one of the biggest cases of the Supreme Court’s year – the Colorado gay wedding cake case. In that case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Colorado, refused to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple’s wedding. The baker claimed that his religion prohibited him from supporting same-sex marriage, and in his view, baking a cake for the couple would be a form of support.
The couple complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which found that the baker violated the state’s law against public businesses discriminating based on sexual orientation. The baker appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, raising the important issue of whether religion trumps anti-discrimination law.
This leaves us with some complicated questions: Are anti-discrimination principles and the dignity of people who have continuously been denied rights in this country more important than the religious beliefs of people who enter the public marketplace to sell goods or provide services? Or are deeply held religious beliefs so important to this country’s history and beliefs that they cannot give way, even to anti-discrimination law?
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court didn’t shed any light on those questions today when it ruled 7-2 in favor of the baker. What the Court ruled today was that the hearing the baker got before the Colorado Commission was infused with anti-religion bias. The Court’s decision detailed how at the hearing, there were, among other comments, statements disparaging the baker’s religion and comparing his views to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. Thus, the Court held, the hearing was biased against religion and violated the baker’s constitutional right to freedom of religion.
As for whether anti-discrimination law trumps religion (or vice versa), the Supreme Court passed that big question back to the lower courts for now. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded, “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that 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.”
In other words, the Court said that because it didn’t decide much of anything today, more cases are going to arise until it does. And, when these cases do arise, the Court understands that emotions will run high, but it wants everyone to please follow the Bill and Ted principle: be excellent to each other.
In the abortion case, the Court also didn’t do much, even though headlines might say that the Court handed a win to the Trump administration. This case involved Jane Doe, the unaccompanied minor in immigration custody in the U.S. Doe was pregnant and wanted an abortion, but the Trump administration tried to block her from getting one because it felt letting her do so would be the government participating in abortion, which it didn’t want to do. After much legal wrangling, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that she had a constitutional right to end her pregnancy. The court ruled on Tuesday, October 24, and she got her abortion the morning of Wednesday, October 25.
In a rational world, that would be the end of the case, but the Trump administration was so infuriated by the appeals court decision and the abortion that they appealed to the Supreme Court.
Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the case was “moot,” a legal term for there no longer being an actual controversy in the case. This happens from time to time when a case is on appeal but before there is a final decision, and when it does, the lower court rulings are “vacated” – meaning they are wiped from the books as if the case didn’t happen. With no final decision by a final appeals court, the thinking goes, the case should disappear.
Because Jane Doe had her abortion, the Court said the entire case was now moot because there was no more controversy (she can’t go back on the abortion). In a very minor way, this is a win for the Trump administration because the lower court explanation of its decision, which could have stood as the basis for reasoning in future similar cases, now disappears. But the principles behind it still exist, and future cases – like the ACLU’s class-action in court now challenging the Trump administration policy restricting immigrant women’s abortion access – can make those arguments and, hopefully, like Jane Doe, win.
The Court did one other important thing in this case today. It ruled that Jane Doe’s lawyers did not act unethically. The Trump administration had claimed that her lawyers had deceived the government by saying that she would get an abortion later in the week but then getting her an abortion overnight after the ruling. If she had waited, they could have appealed quickly and tried to stop her. But, with the quick abortion, their efforts were thwarted. The government claimed this was unethical and asked the Court to sanction the lawyers. The Court denied that request, saying there was no evidence of wrongdoing, as opposed to vigorous representation of a client to protect her interests.
So, two big cases about some of the most divisive issues in America, yet two decisions that resolved very little. But that’s how the Supreme Court works. Sometimes we get gay marriage approved and anti-abortion laws struck down, other times we get very narrow rulings based on very particular facts. The latter is today’s story. Don’t let any stories or headlines tell you otherwise.