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On one hand, the US Supreme Court ruled in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964), that private businesses cannot refuse service on the basis of race. On the other hand, it also ruled in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. 617 (2018), and again in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, 600 U.S. 570 (2023), that a private business can refuse to create expression that would violate the proprietor's sincerely held religious beliefs.

So: what if a person had sincerely held religious beliefs that a certain race was inferior and should not be served? (Marshall Tigerus of worldbuilding.se claims that this happened for real: "some people interpreted the bible to say that the Mark of Cain was black skin".) Which of the above precedents controls?

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    An important distinction between Atlanta Motel and Masterpiece Cakeshop is that the cake in the latter case was an expressive product. I doubt that a bakery could refuse to sell a plain unadorned cake with no expressive content to a gay couple for their wedding or for any other purpose; that service is more closely analogous to restaurant service and hotel accommodation.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 2 at 18:05
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    @phoog: The exact same bake shop did refuse to sell a trans woman a cake with a blue exterior and pink interior. It was a complicated mess, but the cake shop eventually lost.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 3 at 2:31
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    The 2nd. Masterpiece cake case hinges on that even the cake shop owner admitted that this one cake had no inherent message.
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 3 at 9:11
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    The citations are not about compelling real persons, they are about compelling businesses. A real person is not normally compelled to keep working at a job that violates their religious beliefs (though obviously there can be exceptions, military, etc.). Commented Jun 3 at 11:00
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    @Kevin : it seems that after the cake shop won that first case, there was an influx of orders deliberately seeking out that shop in particular to ask for things they knew the shop was uncomfortable with, to test the waters and find some case where the shop won't win. This starts getting in the direction where some "patrons" deliberately seek out occasions to get injured so they can sue the shop.
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 4 at 7:21

3 Answers 3

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Can a person be compelled to violate their religious beliefs if those beliefs are racist?

Yes. Masterpiece Cakeshop does not hold that the right of free of religion or the right of free expression prevails over all other laws. It holds that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission displayed bias against religion when it evaluated the complaint against Masterpiece. But the court ruled more recently in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis that (quoting Wikipedia)

while public accommodation laws are not per se unconstitutional (since "there are [...] innumerable goods and services that no one could argue implicate the First Amendment"), a businessperson cannot be compelled to create a work of art which goes against their values and which they would not produce for any client.

The distinguishing factor is whether the service involves expression on the part of the service provider. The idea is that a sign painter who is anti-Christian can refuse to paint signs that say "Jesus is Lord" but an anti-Christian house painter cannot refuse to paint a house for a Christian because painting houses does not express an opinion for or against Christianity or anything else. (The more classic example, of course, is that a racist restaurateur or hotel operator cannot refuse to serve a meal to or rent a room to a person because of the person's race or perceived race.)

It seems however that there are still some unsettled questions here, however. Again quoting Wikipedia:

Gorsuch cautioned that the question of "what qualifies as expressive activity protected by the First Amendment" remained open as it was unnecessary to define that for the purpose of this case.

It seems likely that this issue will come before the court again before long.

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    It may also help to acknowledge that the Court has rather little leeway to argue that LGBTQ+ individuals are somehow different from other disfavored classes, because Bostock v. Clayton County already acknowledged that LGBT discrimination is sex discrimination. Obviously, there are other groups that fall under the "Q+" who were not included in that ruling, but those types of discrimination are more complicated and esoteric, and (for the most part) still need to be addressed in legislation before the court would even get involved.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 3 at 2:24
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    @Shautieh: The laws/concepts in this answer apply to both racism and homophobia. It would be nice if the answer used examples about racism, but the Masterpiece Cakeshop is an especially excellent example for explanatory purposes.
    – Brian
    Commented Jun 3 at 13:34
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Can a person be compelled to violate their religious beliefs if those beliefs are racist?

No. But a person can face strong economic pressure to do so.

Someone can be forced to choose between operating a public accommodation or other business (e.g. renting apartments) subject to laws barring racial discrimination in a legal way, or not engaging in those activities at all. But, not all economic activities are subject to these laws.

Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964), is still good law, and would even survive most attempts to claim a religious exemption. But recent caselaw has slightly trimmed its scope at the margins, when a religious objection is claimed.

If someone is determined to make racially discriminatory decisions in one's business or employment activities which they feel are compelled by their sincerely held religious beliefs, while being similarly committed to complying with the law, this dramatically reduces that person's economic options to make a living. But it doesn't eliminate this person's economic options to make a living entirely.

Notable Exemptions From Discrimination Laws

Masterpiece Cakeshop as clarified and expanded by 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, basically stands for the proposition that a business based upon selling your own personal expressive activity cannot be regulated in a way that alters that personal expression.

Similarly, religious organizations are generally exempt.

Lots of businesses that don't involve coming into contact with customers, and do not have employees (or have very few employees, such as only employing family members), for example, running a small gold mine or a small family farm, are also exempt.

Likewise, lots of lower level employees do not have job responsibilities that give them an opportunity to make legally regulated decisions in a racially discriminatory manner, although most managers who supervise other employees, and many employees who have "forward facing" customer service roles do.

The Practical Reality

The practical reality, as of the year 2024 in the U.S., is that U.S. cultural norms have evolved, over the last sixty years or so, to the point where very few people and very few religious organizations claim that they are religiously compelled to act in a racially discriminatory manner.

This doesn't only mean that the issue comes up less often. It also means that the sincerity of the religious beliefs of someone who does claim a religious objection is viewed with more skepticism by judges and juries as an evidentiary matter in a trial seeking to enforce anti-discrimination laws involving racial discrimination. The overwhelming extent of the overall societal shift undermines the credibility of someone who claims to have a sincere religious obligation to discriminate based upon race. And, if a judge or jury concludes that the claimed pro-discrimination religious belief is not actually that person's own sincerely held religious belief, then a religious objection defense to enforcement of an anti-discrimination law against them will fail.

But many people and many religious organizations in the U.S. sincerely claim that they are religious compelled to act in a discriminatory manner towards LGBT+ individuals. This is why Masterpiece Cakeshop and 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis involved customers celebrating same sex marriages and not, for example, interracial marriages.

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    – feetwet
    Commented Jun 5 at 18:20
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Lots of wedding cakes have two figures on the top representing husband and wife. And nowadays some people want two men or two women, or a black and a white figure.

The baker has to sell any cake they made to the couple. If he or she sells cakes without the figures and has boxes of figures for the customer to buy, then he must sell the cake, and two figures of men.

What he is not required to do is to make a cake with two male figures on top, because that is actively supporting. He would be allowed to offer them the cake and two separate figures of their choice.

Now if you think your religion tells you not to sell any cakes to gay couples, then sorry, you need a different job.

PS In reality there would be a baker/decorator, a sales person, and a store owner. The baker/decorator could claim its against their religion. Then we would have a different question, whether the store owner can make them create the cake. But if the baker has no problem doing it, the argument fails definitely for the sales person and possibly for the store owner.

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    This answer is also factually wrong post-Mastershop. The cake in question was an unadorned cake to be used in a wedding.
    – Chuu
    Commented Jun 3 at 14:39
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    (1) Could the baker insist that if I want to buy two figures of men, I have to buy four figures, because the figures are not sold individually, but only as man-woman figure pairs? (2) Do I really want to buy my wedding cake from a baker who hates me? That's a risky move!
    – Stef
    Commented Jun 3 at 20:22
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    @Chuu: The cake in question was not unadorned, because there was no cake in question. There was a discussion about possibly buying a cake at some point, but they never got to the point of working out what the cake would look like or anything along those lines. The cake shop characterizes its business as making "custom" wedding cakes, so their argument was that the cake would have been customized for the couple if they had agreed to make it.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 3 at 20:56
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    @Chuu: I find your comment a bit less compelling in the face of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where the customer intentionally put Masterpiece Cakeshop in the position to make an unadorned cake. They refused and were eventually fined $500 for violating Colorado's anti-discrimination law.
    – Brian
    Commented Jun 3 at 21:33
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    The argument is that a cake shop cannot refuse to sell cakes for a gay wedding, but can refuse to make a cake that explicitly states support for gay marriages. The “two male figures on top” is a simple example how a “gay” wedding cake might be different; and selling the cake and two separate figures that the couple puts on the cake themselves wouldn’t contradict any religious beliefs.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jun 4 at 20:54

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