The move puts off a major case that could have been heard next term during the heart of the presidential election and allows the issue to further percolate in the lower courts.
The court took over three months, discussing the case behind closed doors, to render Monday’s summary decision. The timing suggests the justices were debating different ways of resolving the case, short of putting it on the calendar for next term.
The case concerned Melissa and Aaron Klein, who operated “Sweetcakes by Melissa” in Oregon. The bakers refused to make a cake to celebrate the same-sex wedding of Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman.
First Liberty, the group representing the bakers, said in a statement Monday that the court’s move was a “victory.”
“This is a victory for Aaron and Melissa Klein and for religious liberty for all Americans,” said Kelly Shackelford, the president, CEO and chief counsel to First Liberty. “The Constitution protects speech, popular or not, from condemnation by the government. The message from the court is clear, government hostility toward religious Americans will not be tolerated.”
“Today’s move to send the case back to the Oregon state courts is something of a surprise, because this case had been pitched all along as raising the broader constitutional question that the Justices ducked last year in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
“By asking the state courts to reconsider their ruling in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the justices are, in effect, asking the Oregon courts if a similarly narrow basis is available for resolving this case — even though the parties have framed the case as presenting a broader conflict between the constitutional rights to religious liberty and same-sex marriage.”
Vladeck added: “That it took the court this long to reach a result that, in retrospect, is a pretty straightforward compromise, suggests that there was detailed back-and-forth behind the scenes.”
“It’s not hard to imagine some justices wanting to take this case now, others wanting to deny it altogether, and today’s result emerging only over time as a middle ground that they could all endorse — at least publicly. And it’s hard to imagine that Chief Justice John Roberts wasn’t at the heart of such a compromise,” he said.
CLARIFICATION: This story and headline have been updated to clarify that the Supreme Court sent a case back to lower courts on a bakery’s refusal to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.