A License to Discriminate? The Empirical Consequences and Normative Implications of Religious Exemptions

In 2018, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civ Rights Com in favor of a baker who refused service to a same-sex couple due to his religious beliefs. This article examines the behavioral effect of this decision in a field experiment (N=1,155 businesses) that measured discrimination towards same-sex couples in the field of wedding services shortly before and after Masterpiece. I find that Masterpiece significantly reduced the agreement to provide services to same-sex couples as compared with heterosexual couples, even among vendors that provided this service before the decision. These results discredit the argument that religious exemptions will not expand discrimination. Instead, the Masterpiece experiment shows that even exemptions can have a significant and robust, even if inadvertent impact on a market and its customers. I discuss how an empirical approach to rights conflicts can guide legislatures and courts that deliberate how to navigate these conflicts.