The Supreme Court agreed Monday to take up a high-profile case to decide whether a Christian baker, citing personal religious beliefs, can refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
The case, which stems from a dispute between Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, will be heard during the next term, which begins in October.
Christian conservatives have been hoping the court would take up the case and are seeking a ruling in favor of the baker to set new ground for religious freedom.
A Colorado court has ruled against the baker.
The case had been on the Supreme Court’s list for potential cases since September, and the delay had prompted speculation about what was going on behind the scenes.
Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law, said he was surprised that the court decided to take up the case and predicted a huge impact next year.
“Something must have shifted. Maybe there are now votes to reverse,” he said.
The case is being viewed as the next major follow-up to the court’s 2015 ruling in the Obergefell case, which established a national right to same-sex marriage on par with the long-standing understanding of traditional marriage.
Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the baker, said people should be able to live out their faith without fear of government punishment. It argues that the baker deserves protection under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.
“These are custom-designed artistic projects that express a vision,” said Nicolle Martin, an attorney allied with Alliance Defending Freedom. “Artistic expression has always enjoyed broad protection under the Constitution.”
But Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the same-sex couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, who initiated the complaint against the baker, says the First Amendment doesn’t provide a license to discriminate.
“It’s a question of whether David and Charlie … and others throughout the country are going to be protected from discrimination,” said Ms. Melling. “They were turned away because of who they are — a same-sex couple.”
The case’s long wait led a number of court watchers to conclude that the justices were waiting for Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to join the court, providing the fourth vote in favor of hearing the case.
John Elwood, a lawyer who has been monitoring the case as it has been relisted by the justices for consideration more than a dozen times, said the delay signaled a strongly divided court.
“They wouldn’t have spent so long exchanging drafts of opinions within the court if they didn’t have strong views on the issues,” Mr. Elwood said.
Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the eventual ruling will likely come down to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s swing vote.
“Justice Kennedy has always been extremely sensitive to making any group of Americans feel like outsiders,” Mr. Lynn said.