WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court announced Monday it would not decide, for now, whether a Christian couple from Oregon had a constitutional right to defy that state's civil rights law and refuse to make a wedding cake for the marriage of two women.
Instead, the justices told an Oregon court to take a second look at their case based on last year's high court ruling in favor of a Christian cake maker from Colorado.
The tentative decision shows again that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his colleagues are inclined to put off rulings on culture war controversies.
Melissa and Aaron Klein refused to make a cake in 2013 for the marriage of two women. Oregon authorities fined them $135,000 for violating the state's law that requires businesses to provide full and equal service for all customers, without regard to their race, religion or sexual orientation.
Had they prevailed, their case could have set a national precedent, giving conservative Christians a religious exemption from laws that bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status. There is no federal law that forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation, but Oregon, like California and 20 other states, prohibits such discrimination by businesses and employers.
In recent years, several Catholic social services agencies have objected to arranging adoptions for same-sex couples, and a small number of business owners -- including a photographer in New Mexico and a florist in Washington state -- waged legal battles after refusing to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Until now, the Christian business owners have lost in the courts. Judges have upheld the state civil rights laws and the principle of non-discrimination.
Four conservative justices dissented in 2015 when the court upheld an equal right to marry for same-sex couples. With Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh having joined the court, there may now be five justices ready to side with religious conservatives on the question of whether their beliefs can override civil rights statutes.
Retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy played the key role in the court's 2015 decision on equal marriage rights. He was torn last year over the case of a baker from Colorado who cited his Christian beliefs as reason for turning away two men who were planning a wedding party.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado, Kennedy wrote an opinion that did not resolve how future cases would be decided. He endorsed equal rights for gays and lesbians but said Jack Phillips, the baker in that case, had been subjected to religious "hostility" by a state commission.
"These disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious belief, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market," he wrote.
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