Metro Weekly

Court: Colorado cake shop cannot refuse service to gays

Wedding cake  Photo by Ward Morrison

Wedding cake
Photo by Ward Morrison

The Colorado Court of Appeals on Thursday unanimously ruled that a cake shop cannot refuse service to a gay couple. It upholds a finding from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that the shop’s owners had violated state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The court found that Masterpiece Cakeshop — of Lakewood, Colo. — had discriminated against David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012. The couple came to the bakery to order a wedding cake for a private wedding reception. Masterpiece owner Jack Phillips informed the couple that, due to his religious beliefs, he was refusing to provide cakes for same-sex weddings.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of Colorado filed suit in 2013 on behalf of Mullins and Craig. Later that year, an Administrative Judge Robert Spencer of the Colorado Office of Administrative Courts ruled that Masterpiece had illegally discriminated against the couple.

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Masterpiece then appealed Spencer’s ruling to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The commission then upheld Spencer’s findings, and ruled that Masterpiece had, in fact, violated Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA). The commission also ordered Masterpiece to change its company policies, provide “comprehensive staff training” on public accommodations discrimination, and provide quarterly reports for the next two years detailing its level of compliance. Masterpiece appealed yet again, this time to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

“Masterpiece remains free to continue espousing its religious beliefs, including its opposition to same-sex marriage,” the unanimous decision reads. “However, if it wishes to operate as a public accommodation and conduct business within the State of Colorado, CADA prohibits it from picking and choosing its customers based on their sexual orientation.”

The court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not exceed its authority when imposing requirements on Masterpiece to prove that they are abiding by the nondiscrimination law. It also noted that Masterpiece has other ways of expressing its opposition to same-sex marriage while still continuing to provide equal service to all of its customers.

“CADA does not preclude Masterpiece from expressing its views on same-sex marriage — including its religious opposition to it — and the bakery remains free to disassociate itself from its customers’ viewpoints,” the opinion continues. “We recognize that…CADA prohibits Masterpiece from displaying or disseminating a notice stating that it will refuse to provide its services based on a customer’s desire to engage in same-sex marriage or indicating that those engaging in same-sex marriage are unwelcome at the bakery. However, CADA does not prevent Masterpiece from posting a disclaimer in the store or on the Internet indicating that the provision of its services does not constitute an endorsement or approval of conduct protected by CADA. Masterpiece could also post or otherwise disseminate a message indicating that CADA requires it not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and other protected characteristics. Such a message would likely have the effect of disassociating Masterpiece from its customers’ conduct.”

Phillips’ lawyers previously told Colorado Public Radio that if he lost his case before the Colorado Court of Appeals, he would appeal yet again, with the intention of eventually taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argue that forcing him to abide by the nondiscrimination law violates his First Amendment rights.

Despite the likely appeal, the ACLU celebrated the ruling on Thursday, noting that courts have previously held that businesses are subject to nondiscrimination laws, without regard to whether the goods or services a business offers could be offered elsewhere. The organization argues that there is a harm to equal opportunity if LGBT people can be turned away by businesses who otherwise serve the rest of the public. 

“Today is a proud day for equality and for upholding the law,” Ria Marr, staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT Project, who argued the case before the court of appeals. “When every lesbian or gay person, every woman, every person of color, every person of every faith can walk into a store, a bank, a hospital, and know that they will get the same service as everyone else, we will have won. Until then, we continue to fight for the equal treatment we all deserve.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com