WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court delivered a historic but limited victory Monday to a Colorado baker who refused to design a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, in a closely-watched case pitting gay rights against religious liberty.
In a 7-2 decision, the high court ruled that while the Colorado Civil Rights Commission determined that Masterpiece Cakeshop must serve clients regardless of sexual orientation, the panel showed "clear and impermissible hostility" toward the baker's religious beliefs.
The commission's bias therefore violated baker Jack Phillips's rights under the US Constitution's First Amendment, the justices found.
But they did not definitively rule on the issue of whether a business can decline to serve gays and lesbians based on religious views, meaning the broader contentious issue is likely to simmer.
The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, and Colorado law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Bakery owner Jack Phillips had argued that he refused to serve the couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, when they walked into his shop in 2012 because he opposed their planned marriage on religious grounds.
The Colorado commission's "hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment's guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in an 18-page majority opinion.
"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."
He noted that the panel's "official expressions of hostility to religion" was "inconsistent" with its strict requirement for neutrality.
Two liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joined the conservatives in the majority ruling on the most significant case for gay rights since the high court approved same-sex marriage.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, arguing that the commission's alleged hostility played only a minor role.
"What matters is that Phillips would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple," Ginsburg wrote.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was pleased with the decision.
"In this case and others, the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously defend the free speech and religious freedom First Amendment rights of all Americans," Sessions said in a statement.
Last year, President Donald Trump's administration weighed in on the side of Phillips, as the Justice Department filed a brief arguing that his First Amendment right of free expression had been violated.
Mat Staver, chairman of the conservative Liberty Counsel, called the decision a "huge victory for the religious rights" of private citizens.
"A person should be free to refuse to be used as a mouthpiece for an objectionable message," he said.
In December, Phillips's lawyers argued before the court that while the baker was perfectly willing to sell ready-made products to anyone, a wedding cake can be considered artistic expression, and such creations can express a message -- something Phillips was not prepared to do for a gay couple.
The cake case became a flashpoint in American political circles in recent years, with Republican lawmakers eager to plant the flag of religious freedom in backing the baker.
"Today, the Supreme Court took a stand for religious liberty against the unconstitutional demands of an oppressive bureaucracy," Senator Ted Cruz said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which argued the case on behalf of Mullins and Craig, said the ruling represented a victory for the core principle upholding fair business practices for all.
"The court reversed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision based on concerns unique to the case, but reaffirmed its longstanding rule that states can prevent the harms of discrimination in the marketplace, including against LGBT people," said ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling.
The Supreme Court's punt on the broader issue of whether a business can invoke religious objections in order to refuse service assures that the subject will remain a major American debate.
Mullins and Craig said in a statement that their fight against discrimination would continue.
"We brought this case because no one should have to face the shame, embarrassment and humiliation of being told 'we don't serve your kind here' that we faced, and we will continue fighting until no one does," they said.