The civil liberties of gay couples and the religious rights of a Colorado business owner were recently on a collision course. Then, on June 4, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court found a detour to avoid the collision…at least for now.
The Court held that, in some instances, a balance must be struck between protecting gay persons in the exercise of their civil rights and the rights of a business owner to express his religious-based objection to gay marriage. The majority of the Supreme Court held that the Colorado commission’s treatment of the baker violated Colorado’s duty under the First Amendment not to have laws or regulations that express an overt hostility to a religion or a religious viewpoint. This case is known as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
This case is of special interest to human resources professionals and business owners because the same policy intersection could easily arise in an employment context in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has a law similar to the Colorado law that makes it unlawful to give preferential treatment to some classes of persons in providing services or facilities in any public place of accommodation or amusement because of sex, race, color, creed, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry. In Wisconsin Statutes § 106.52(3), a person who feels that he or she has been a victim of unlawful treatment under the law may file a claim with the Equal Rights Division of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, the same entity that considers violations under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act.
In addition, certain Wisconsin employers may have the constitutional protection of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That clause states that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.
The rights and remedies available to everyone under state and federal law — whether state fair employment or public accommodation laws, or Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or similar federal laws — often create policy conflicts for employees, employers and businesses in general. The wise HR professional will stay alert to the intersection and potential conflicts that will necessarily arise in the workplace and in the marketplace. For now, the resolution to the underlying policy conflict in Masterpiece Cakeshop between public accommodation rights for gay couples and the religious expression rights of small businesses will need to be addressed another day.