Metro Weekly

Supreme Court to hear case of Colorado bakery that denied service to gay couple

Case centers around whether the First Amendment allow baker's religious beliefs to override nondiscrimination law

Photo: U.S. Supreme Court. Credit: Davis Staedtler/flickr.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from a Colorado baker who refuses to bake cakes for same-sex weddings.

Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., has appealed a decision finding him in violation of Colorado’s law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It sets the stage for the court deciding whether a person’s personal religious beliefs are allowed to trump nondiscrimination laws.

In 2012, Phillips refused to create a cake for the wedding reception of David Mullins and Charlie Craig, who had planned to marry in Massachusetts. After they were denied service, the couple sued.

In December 2013, an administrative judge ruled that Phillips and Masterpiece had illegally discriminated against Mullins and Craig. In 2014, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission found similarly.

Masterpiece appealed the decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which ruled unanimously that it had violated the state’s nondiscrimination law. In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the case, prompting Phillips’ lawyers to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Phillips claims that by making cakes and other baked goods, he is personally involved in the celebration for which he is providing the food.

He argues that his religious beliefs prevent him from baking cakes for same-sex couples, atheists, and other groups of people who engage in celebrations to which he personally objects — including Halloween.

The Supreme Court case will largely center around whether a person’s free speech rights or exercise of religion is infringed upon by a nondiscrimination law that is neutral and does not explicitly intend to restrict speech.

Phillips’ lawyers claim that his religious beliefs should be justification enough to ignore the nondiscrimination law, even though he has opened up his bakery to the general public.

The case will also have significant ramifications regarding the extent of a person’s religious freedom.

Should the court decide in favor of Masterpiece, it would essentially undermine nondiscrimination laws that protect LGBTQ people, by allowing businesses to claim a religious exemption to having to serve same-sex couples and others who do not conform to prescribed sexual mores.

This would also likely lead more states to adopt so-called “religious freedom” laws like the one signed into law in Mississippi last year.

In the past, lower courts have generally sided with the LGBTQ community, finding that a business owner’s personal religious beliefs are not enough to override state nondiscrimination laws.

This has been the case with other bakeries, florists, and wedding-related businesses that have tried to claim religious objections to serving same-sex couples.

In a Supreme Court brief, Phillips’ lawyers also argue that the Civil Rights Commission unfairly singled out Phillips for discrimination because its members objected to his opposition to same-sex marriage.

“The Commission, for example, found it critically important that the three secular cake artists who refused a Christian patron’s orders did so ‘based on the [custom cakes’] explicit message,’ although they were happy to create other items ‘ordered by Christian customers,'” the brief reads.

“Phillips explained that he too declined to create a custom same-sex  wedding cake based on its morally objectionable message and that he is happy to create other items for gay clients. After all, a wedding cake is not a passive object but a central component of the wedding reception that celebrates the couple’s joining as one.

“Nonetheless, the Commission found Phillips in violation of CADA. The only explanation for this disparate treatment is the Commission’s disapproval of Phillips’ religious beliefs about same-sex marriage.”

But LGBTQ advocates argue that simply creating a cake at the request of a same-sex couple does not constitute an endorsement of gay marriage.

They also object to the contention that same-sex couples could simply find a bakery willing to serve them.

Even more importantly, a decision in favor of Masterpiece could have unforeseen ramifications by undermining the very purpose of nondiscrimination laws.

“Importantly, the exemption from anti-discrimination law that the Company argues for is not limited to custom wedding cakes or to discrimination based on sexual orientation. The implications of the Company’s claim, if it were accepted, are staggering,” lawyers for the couple argue in their own brief.

“People hold religious beliefs about a wide variety of things, including racial and religious segregation and the role of women in society. If religious motivation exempted businesses from anti-discrimination laws, government would be powerless to protect all Americans from the harms of invidious discrimination. Landlords could refuse to rent to interracial couples, employers could refuse to hire women or pay them less than men, and a bus line could refuse to drive women to work, to name just a few examples. All civil rights laws would be vulnerable to such claims where the discrimination was motivated by religion.”

[crosslink]Colorado Supreme Court refuses to hear case of bakery that refused service to same-sex couple[/crosslink]

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