Months before shooting, parent warned Colorado school could be next ‘Columbine’

Crime scene tape is seen outside the school following the shooting at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Five months before Tuesday’s deadly shooting at a Colorado school, a district official urged the school’s director to investigate allegations of student bullying and violence by a parent who feared they could lead to the next “Columbine.”

In a Dec. 19 letter to the director of the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, the district official said the anonymous parent raised “concerns about student violence due to a high-pressure environment” and referred to the massacre at a nearby school in 1999.

One student was killed and eight injured when two classmates opened fire with handguns at the school on Tuesday.

The district official’s letter, seen by Reuters, said the parent told Douglas County School Board of Education Director Wendy Vogel by telephone that “many students are suicidal and violent in school. Several students have reported sexual assault and nothing is being done.”

Referencing an alleged bomb threat and “an extremely high drug culture at STEM,” the parent said the environment at the school was “the perfect storm,” according to the letter.

The parent expressed concerns about a repeat of what happened at Columbine when 12 students and one teacher were killed, about five miles northwest of the STEM school.

Douglas County School District official Daniel Winsor’s letter to STEM Executive Director Penelope Eucker asked the school to investigate the parent’s “very serious” concerns, determine their “legitimacy, and “take any remedial action that may be appropriate.”

The district informed police of the allegations, it said. Cocha Heyden, a spokeswoman for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said on Thursday that the district filed a police report about the complaints.

Winsor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Eucker said in a statement on Thursday that STEM contacted the school’s 2,800 parents seeking information on the complaints.

“While STEM took the allegations seriously, our investigation revealed no evidence to support any of the allegations,” the statement said.

On January 17, the school filed a lawsuit in Douglas County District Court seeking to establish the identity of the anonymous parent, who it said defamed the school and Eucker.

On Feb. 1, the school told parents their attorney was seeking “full remedy” for the “outrageous accusations,” which also included embezzling public funds and teaching children how to build bombs.

“We want you to know the depth of this depravity and apologize if you find this as offensive as we did,” said that letter, seen by Reuters.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Chizu Nomiyama)

Selfless teen killed in Colorado school shooting loved robotics, helping the elderly

People hold up the phone lights during a moment of silence at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S., May 8, 2019 as U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) speaks. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – Kendrick Ray Castillo, the 18-year-old who sacrificed his life to save other students during a shooting in a suburban Denver high school, loved robotics, helping the elderly in his community and making people laugh, his friend told Reuters.

Cece Bedard, who knew Castillo since elementary school, said she broke down in tears when she heard her friend had died but was not surprised at his selfless act.

“There is no doubt in my mind that he would have done anything he thought he could have to help anyone,” Bedard said on Wednesday.

Two teenagers are accused of opening fire on fellow students on Tuesday at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Denver, killing Castillo and wounding eight other students.

People listen at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

People listen at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Witnesses said Castillo, who was due to graduate in three days, charged at one of the shooters.

“Kendrick lunged at him,” senior Nui Giasolli told NBC News, referring to the older of the two shooting suspects, Devon Erickson, 18, who was being held on Wednesday on murder and attempted murder charges.

“He shot Kendrick, giving all of us enough time to get underneath our desks, to get ourselves safe, and to run across the room to escape,” Giasolli said.

Fellow student, Brendan Bialy, a U.S. Marine recruit who also charged the shooter with a third student, described Castillo as an unstoppable bowling ball.

“Basically when he gets moving there’s no stopping him,” Bialy said in an interview with multiple media outlets, including Denver’s Fox News affiliate, late on Wednesday.

Bialy said his friend showed no hesitation.

Bedard said she and Castillo both volunteered with their fathers at the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s community service organization when they were in middle school.

Castillo loved tagging along with his father to volunteer with the Knights of Columbus, whether it involved carrying heavy crates of fruit for a peach drive or setting up senior lunches. He was especially good at connecting with the elderly people he served, Bedard said.

“He was always there earlier than I was and was always there later than I was,” she said.

His friends remembered Castillo as a goofy jokester, although his humor was never at anyone’s expense, Bedard said. He had a strong sense of self and did not care what other people thought of him, a trait that made him stand out among his peers.

Castillo was also a member of a regional robotics team, another community that was mourning his loss on Wednesday.

“We’re heartbroken by the death of Kendrick Castillo … Kendrick was a member of @Frc4418, of which his father is Lead Mentor,” FIRST, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing youth in STEM, said on Twitter.

Bialy said Castillo was not a victim but someone who jumped into action.

“I love that kid,” Bialy said. “He died a trooper. He got his ticket to Valhalla, and I know he will be with me for the rest of my life.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in NEW YORK; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in ATLANTA; Editing by Frank McGurty, Phil Berlowitz and Paul Tait)

Two students arrested in Colorado school shooting make first appearance

Crime scene tape is seen outside the school following the shooting at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Keith Coffman

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (Reuters) – Two teenage students accused of fatally shooting one classmate and wounding eight in a suburban Denver school made separate court appearances on Wednesday, a day after their arrest on suspicion of murder and attempted murder.

Douglas County District Judge Theresa Slade, who presided over both proceedings, ordered the two suspects to remain held without bond pending their next court hearings, set for Friday, when formal charges are expected to be filed.

The two youths are accused of opening fire with handguns on fellow students on Tuesday in two classrooms at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Denver.

They were arrested by police after several students under fire at the school fought back, including a young U.S. Marine recruit, Brendan Bialy, who survived, and 18-year-old robotics enthusiast Kendrick Ray Castillo, who was killed.

Castillo’s father, John Castillo, told the Denver Fox news affiliate Fox 31, that his son, “gave up his life for others.”

“If he didn’t do it, what would this mess look like?” he said.

Devon Erickson, 18, accused of taking part in a deadly school shooting at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, appears at the Douglas County Courthouse where he faces murder and attempted murder charges, in Castle Rock, Colorado, U.S., May 8, 2019. Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Pool via REUTERS

The first defendant, Devon Erickson, 18, who prosecutors said they were treating as an adult, sat silently at a small table with his head bowed, hands shackled to his waist, flanked by two defense lawyers as a pair of sheriff’s deputies stood just behind them.

Slight of build with longish, unkempt black hair partially dyed bright lavender, Erickson wore an orange-red jail uniform.

His 16-year-old accused accomplice, referred to in court by his lawyer as Alec McKinney, was listed on the court docket by the name Maya Elizabeth McKinney but was addressed by the judge during the hearing as Mr McKinney.

Denver’s ABC television affiliate, citing an unidentified police source, has reported that the younger suspect identified as transgender and had been bullied for it.

Erickson’s hearing was televised live, but the judge closed McKinney’s hearing to cameras. District Attorney George Brauchler said he would decide by Friday whether to charge McKinney as a juvenile or adult.

Dressed in dark blue jail garb with short-cropped brown hair, McKinney said little in court except to answer softly, “No your honor,” when the judge asked the defendant if there were any questions. The judge refused a defense request to unshackle McKinney for the hearing.

No pleas were entered.

ECHOES OF COLUMBINE

The ABC affiliate, Denver 7, said the two pistols used in the attack had been stolen from the home of Erickson. His friends told the Denver Post that he had acted in musical theater and performed as lead singer in several rock bands. According to Denver 7, city law enforcement sources, Erickson’s parents had purchased the guns legally.

Both defendants were being held on suspicion of a single count of first-degree murder and 29 counts of attempted murder, according to court records. Eight students were wounded in the shooting and survived.

The attack occurred less than a month after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in nearby Littleton, carried out by two students who shot 13 people to death before committing suicide.

Precisely what happened inside the STEM school remained unclear as police searched for a motive in the attack.

Sheriff Tony Spurlock said there was a struggle as officers entered the building, and some students said one victim was shot in the chest as he tried to tackle a shooter.

A man who identified himself as Fernando Montoya said his 17-year-old son, a junior at STEM, was shot three times when one assailant walked into his classroom and opened fire.

“He said a guy pulled a pistol out of a guitar case and started to shoot,” Montoya told the Denver TV station.

The bloodshed shocked the affluent suburb of Highlands Ranch. Parents and students had considered the school a safe place for its 1,850 pupils ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.

“It still doesn’t seem real to me. It completely came out of nowhere,” Aiden Beatty, a friend of Erickson, told the Denver Post, recounting that he broke down sobbing in his car when he heard Erickson had been arrested in the shooting. “I was really close with him. We were best friends.”

The attack came a week after a gunman opened fire on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina, killing two people and wounding four others.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Castle Rock, Colo.; additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico and Rich McKay in Atlanta; writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; editing by Bill Trott, G Crosse and Lisa Shumaker)

Colorado police probe what sparked deadly shooting at suburban school

People wait outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 image obtained via social media. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

By Keith Coffman

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. (Reuters) – Colorado police on Wednesday tried to determine why two students walked into their school and allegedly opened fire with handguns, killing one person and wounding eight, miles from the site of one of the nation’s deadliest school massacres.

Douglas County sheriff Tony Spurlock told a morning news conference that one of the suspected shooters at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, previously identified as male, was a female under the age of 18. The other suspect was Devon Erickson, 18, he said.

A police officer reassures people waiting outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 still frame obtained via social media video. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

A police officer reassures people waiting outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 still frame obtained via social media video. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

He declined to identify the person slain in the attack, other than to say he was an 18-year-old male who had been due to graduate in the three days.

The reason for the attack remained unclear, Spurlock said.

Denver’s ABC television affiliate, citing an unidentified police source, reported on Tuesday that one of the suspects wanted to transition to male from female and had been bullied for it.

Spurlock declined to answer a reporter’s question about whether the younger suspect was transgender.

“Right now we are identifying the individual as a female, because that’s where we’re at,” he said. “We originally thought the juvenile was a male by appearance.”

Spurlock said the suspect had been identified as male “before the detectives were able to get the medical – and detectives were able to speak to her.”

Erickson was expected in Douglas County District Court in nearby Castle Rock at 1:30 p.m. MDT (1830 GMT). The second suspect also will appear in court on Wednesday, said District Attorney George Brauchler.

The two suspects opened fire in two separate classrooms and were arrested within minutes at the public charter school about 25 miles (40 km) south of Denver, Spurlock said.

“A student’s life was taken too soon by this act of violence,” Colorado Governor Jared Polis said at a news conference. “I share the heartbreak, the frustration, the sickness.”

Some of the worst mass shootings in the United States have occurred in Colorado.

The attack occurred less than a month after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in nearby Littleton, about 5 miles (8 km) from the Highlands Ranch school.

In 2012 a man opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, another Denver suburb, killing 12 people and wounding scores more.

What happened inside the STEM school remains unclear.

Spurlock said there was a “struggle” as officers entered the building and some students said one victim was shot in the chest as he tried to tackle a shooter.

A man who identified himself as Fernando Montoya said his 17-year-old son, a junior at STEM, was shot three times when a shooter walked into his classroom and opened fire.

“He said a guy pulled a pistol out of a guitar case and started to shoot,” Montoya told the Denver TV station.

The bloodshed shocked the affluent suburb of Highlands Ranch. Parents and students had considered the school a safe place for its 1,850 pupils ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.

The attack came a week after a gunman opened fire on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina, killing two people and wounding four others.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Bill Trott)

Trucker in deadly Colorado crash charged with 40 criminal counts

Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos appears in a Lakewood Police booking photo after he was arrested for suspicion of multiple counts of vehicular homicide following a crash on the I-70 in Lakewood, Colorado, U.S. April 26, 2019. Lakewood Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Texas truck driver who police say caused a fiery multi-vehicle crash near Denver last week that killed four people and injured four was charged on Friday with 40 criminal counts including vehicular manslaughter, prosecutors said.

Police in Lakewood, Colorado said they arrested 23-year-old Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos after he lost control of his tractor-trailer truck during the evening rush hour on April 25 and caused a crash on Interstate 70 that involved at least 28 vehicles.

The district attorney for Jefferson County, where the crash took place, charged Aguilera-Mederos with 40 counts on Friday, including four counts of vehicular homicide, six of first-degree assault and 24 of attempted first-degree assault.

The tractor-trailer, which was carrying lumber, rammed into several cars, causing a pile-up that became a raging inferno, authorities said. The four men who died were all single occupants in their vehicles, according to a local TV station.

“The carnage was significant,” police spokesman Ty Countryman said at the time. “Just unbelievable.”

There was no initial indication that Aguilera-Mederos intentionally caused the crash, or that he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Countryman said.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Truck driver who triggered deadly Colorado crash charged with homicide

Police Lights

(Reuters) – Police have charged a truck driver with vehicular homicide after he triggered a fiery multi-vehicle crash that killed a still unknown number of motorists, some of whom remain in the wreckage on an interstate near Denver, authorities said on Friday.

The crash on Thursday afternoon turned a stretch of Interstate 70, a major east-west highway, into a raging inferno that involved at least 28 vehicles and may have damaged the road surface and an overpass, authorities said.

A day after the crash, the death toll remains at “multiple” as responders and investigators inspect the burned-out vehicles, Lakewood, Colorado, police spokesman Ty Countryman told reporters.

“We’re just saying ‘multiple’ at this time,” he said, adding that six people were taken to hospitals.

Asked whether there were still any bodies at the crash site, Countryman said, “Unfortunately, yes, there are.”

Police said the chain-reaction crash started when a tractor-trailer truck collided with slower traffic on the highway.

The driver, who was injured in the crash, but not seriously, was taken into custody after police determined they had sufficient cause to bring “multiple counts of vehicular homicide” against him, Countryman said.

There was no indication that the driver, who was not immediately identified, intentionally caused the crash, Countryman said, adding that “at this time there’s no evidence of drugs or alcohol.”

Despite the criminal charges, Countryman said investigators were also trying the determine if the truck’s brakes failed.

The stretch of Interstate 70, which runs through Denver west into the Rocky Mountains, will remain closed in both directions at least until sometime on Saturday, state Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Josh Laipply told reporters.

Parts of the highway will need to be resurfaced and, while a preliminary check shows that a bridge over the crash site was undamaged, it will need a full safety inspection, Laipply said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Doves, heartbreak and hope on 20th anniversary of Columbine High massacre

A man looks at a line of crosses commemorating those killed in the Columbine High School shooting on the 20th anniversary of the attack in Littleton, Colorado, U.S., April 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Keith Coffman

LITTLETON, Colo. (Reuters) – A week-long series of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre culminated on Saturday with a remembrance ceremony celebrating the lives of the 13 victims slain in the rampage.

On April 20, 1999, two Columbine students, just three weeks shy of graduation, stormed the suburban Denver school armed with shotguns and semiautomatic weapons, fatally shooting 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide.

Addressing hundreds of people gathered at Saturday’s service in a park next to the school, Dawn Anna, mother of slain student Lauren Townsend, spoke on behalf of all the families of the victims about their sense of loss.

“Our hearts have huge holes in them, but our hearts are bigger than they were 20 years ago,” Anna said.

Patrick Ireland, whose fall out of a school library window into the arms of firefighters, which became one of the iconic images of the massacre, spoke of his long physical and emotional recovery.

“You’re a victim only if you allow yourself to become one,” Ireland said.

Thirteen doves were released at the end of the ceremony.

For the relatives of those killed, April 20 evokes a mix of emotions from sorrow and anguish to fond memories of loved ones.

Betty Shoels, the aunt of murdered student Isaiah Shoels, said her 18-year-old nephew was a fun-loving athlete who was always smiling, despite feeling out of place as one of the school’s few African-American students.

“What I miss most is his laugh,” Shoels told Reuters. ”He was just a great kid who loved to joke.”

This year’s remembrances were marred this week when a Florida teenager, who authorities said was “obsessed” with Columbine, traveled to Colorado where she died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot.

Evan Todd was a sophomore at Columbine two decades ago when he was wounded in the school library, where 10 of the students were killed. He said whenever he hears of school shootings or other tragedies somehow linked to Columbine, it reminds him that he was “part of something so gruesome and so public.”

He often recalls his football teammate Matt Kechter, who was shot dead just a few feet away from him.

“Sometimes I wonder what Matt would be doing now, what is life would be like,” said Todd, 35, who is the father of a one-year-old son.

He credits his family and Christian faith for getting him through the months following the tragedy.

“I’m just thankful that I survived,” he said.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Chizu Nomiyama)

Teen ‘infatuated’ with Columbine found dead in Colorado

FILE PHOTO: People visit the Columbine memorial after teens kicked off a voter registration rally, a day ahead of the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, U.S., April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Florida teenager believed to be armed and “infatuated” with the Columbine massacre was found dead by authorities in Colorado after she traveled to the state days before the 20th anniversary of the school attack, according to CNN and other media reports.

Sol Pais, identified as an 18-year-old woman from Surfside, Florida, who authorities called “extremely dangerous,” was found

in Clear Creek County, a local CBS affiliate reported. CNN, citing law enforcement sources, reported that she was dead when authorities found her.

Pais was “no longer a threat to the community,” Patricia Billinger, a spokeswoman for Colorado’s Public Safety Department told Reuters. She declined to elaborate.

Clear Creek County is about 40 miles (64 km) west of Columbine High School, where two teenaged male students shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher on April 20, 1999, before committing suicide.

Area schools were closed on Wednesday as FBI agents, Jefferson County deputies and Colorado state troopers searched for Pais.

Pais flew from Miami to Denver on Monday, where she bought a pump-action shotgun and ammunition, FBI Special Agent in Charge Dean Phillips said at a news conference late on Tuesday. Denver is adjacent to Jefferson County.

Some 20 to 30 officers were searching for her near the Echo Lake Campground in the Arapaho National Forest on Wednesday morning, CBS4 in Denver reported.

A spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools said that Pais was student at Miami Beach Senior High School and that there was no threat to schools within the district.

On Tuesday, an FBI bulletin said authorities lacked probable cause for a formal arrest but that law enforcement should detain Pais for a mental-health evaluation.

The sheriff’s Twitter post, which included two photos of Pais, said she was dressed in a black T-shirt, camouflage pants and black boots.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, and additional writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Larry King and Bill Berkrot)

Denver union, officials to reconvene as schools strike enters second day

FILE PHOTO: The Continental Divide is seen in the background behind the downtown city skyline in Denver, Colorado, U.S., November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – Thousands of Denver public school teachers are expected to strike Tuesday, disrupting classes for more than 90,000 students for a second day as union and school district officials resume talks that broke down at the weekend.

In the latest of several major strikes to hit the U.S. public school system, the teachers are seeking pay hikes and a new salary structure.

Statewide stoppages affected West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona last year, and Los Angeles teachers reached a deal last month to reduce class sizes and raise salaries by 6 percent, ending a six-week walkout.

Talks in Denver broke down on Saturday night, triggering the first walkout by teachers in the city since 1994 on Monday.

It disrupted classes for some 92,000 students but district officials kept all 207 schools open Monday, staffed by substitute teachers and administration personnel, and are expected to do so as long as the strike continues.

Denver’s 5,650-member teachers’ union says a new pay scheme has sacrificed dependable cost-of-living wage hikes for limited bonuses offered for teaching in high-poverty areas and classes with problematic students.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district had proposed a pay increase of nearly 11 percent next year. Robert Gould, lead negotiator for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s bargaining team, said the district was inflating the value of the offer.

The two sides are scheduled to reconvene for talks at 10:00 am on Tuesday, when thousands of teachers are again expected to brave freezing weather to picket outside schools before a rally at the city’s Civic Center Park.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Jann Tracey in Denver and Gina Cherelus in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S. Supreme Court backs Christian baker who rebuffed gay couple

FILE PHOTO: Baker, Jack Phillips, decorates a cake in his Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado U.S., on September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory on narrow grounds to a Colorado baker who refused based on his Christian beliefs to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, stopping short of setting a major precedent allowing people to claim religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

The justices, in a 7-2 decision, said the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed an impermissible hostility toward religion when it found that baker Jack Phillips violated the state’s anti-discrimination law by rebuffing gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012. The state law bars businesses from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation.

The court concluded that the commission violated Phillips’ religious rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

But the justices did not issue a definitive ruling on the circumstances under which people can seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws based on religion. The decision also did not address important claims raised in the case including whether baking a cake is a kind of expressive act protected by the Constitution’s free speech guarantee.

Two of the court’s four liberals, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joined the five conservative justices in the ruling authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who also wrote the landmark 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide.

The baker case became a cultural flashpoint in the United States, underscoring the tensions between gay rights proponents and conservative Christians.

Both sides claimed a measure of victory. The couple’s supporters noted that the ruling embraced the importance of gay rights and made it clear that businesses open to the public must serve everyone. The baker’s lawyers said the ruling emphasized that the government must respect religious beliefs.

“It’s hard to believe that the government punished me for operating my business consistent with my beliefs about marriage. That isn’t freedom or tolerance,” Phillips said in a statement.

“Today’s decision means our fight against discrimination and unfair treatment will continue,” Mullins and Charlie Craig said in a statement. “We have always believed that in America, you should not be turned away from a business open to the public because of who you are.”

Seventy-two percent of U.S. adults believe that businesses should not have the right on religious grounds to deny services to customers based on their sexual orientation, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Monday showed.

“Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” Kennedy wrote.

But Kennedy said the state commission’s hostility toward religion “was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.”

In one exchange at a 2014 hearing before the commission cited by Kennedy, former commissioner Diann Rice said that “freedom of religion, and religion, has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust.”

Kennedy said the commission ruled the opposite way in three cases brought against bakers in which the business owners refused to bake cakes containing messages that demeaned gay people or same-sex marriage.

SESSIONS HAILS RULING

Republican President Donald Trump’s administration, which intervened in the case in support of Phillips, welcomed the ruling. “The First Amendment prohibits governments from discriminating against citizens on the basis of religious beliefs,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

The decision made it clear that even if the court ultimately rules in a future case that bakers or other businesses that sell creative products such as florists and wedding photographers can avoid punishment under anti-discrimination laws, most businesses open to the public would have no such defense.

Of the 50 states, 21 including Colorado have anti-discrimination laws protecting gay people.

The case marked a test for Kennedy, who has authored significant rulings that advanced gay rights but also is a strong advocate for free speech rights and religious freedom.

“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,” Kennedy wrote.

In a written dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by fellow liberal Sonia Sotomayor, said what mattered was that Phillips would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple.

The litigation, along with similar cases around the country, was part of a conservative Christian backlash to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling.

Mullins and Craig were planning their wedding in Massachusetts in 2012 and wanted the cake for a reception in Colorado, where gay marriage was not yet legal. During a brief encounter at Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, the baker politely but firmly refused, leaving the couple distraught.

They filed a successful complaint with the state commission and state courts sided with the couple, prompting Phillips to appeal to the top U.S. court.

Mullins and Craig said Phillips was using his Christian faith as pretext for unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation. Phillips and others like him who believe that gay marriage is inconsistent with their Christian beliefs have said they should not be required to effectively endorse the practice.

“Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society, yet the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage. The court was right to condemn that,” said lawyer Kristen Waggoner of the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips.

The court will soon have the opportunity to signal its approach to handling similar cases. The justices on Thursday will consider whether to hear an appeal by a Washington state flower shop owner who refused to create a floral arrangement to celebrate a gay wedding, based on her Christian beliefs.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)