You have probably heard the headline by now – a gay couple went into a Colorado bakery in 2012 and asked the baker to make a cake for their wedding celebration. The baker refused because his religious beliefs are inconsistent with gay marriage. The couple sued, and the parties spent the next six years and countless thousands of dollars engaged in litigation.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the decision of the Colorado Court of Appeals and held the baker could not be forced to make the wedding cake. Since the media has been reporting the case with its own slant, I wanted to share some facts that are important to understanding the case.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the focus of this case and the legal reasoning for the decision was so narrow, it is not likely to influence much, if any, future laws or legal disputes. Keep reading and you will see why.
To understand this case, you must first understand the baker, Jack Phillips. Phillips is an expert baker who has owned and operated his business for 24 years. He is a deeply religious man whose “main goal in life is to be obedient to” Jesus Christ and Christ’s teachings. The shop is closed on Sundays. He pays his employees a higher than market wage and has even loaned them money in time of need. Phillips “refuses to bake cakes containing alcohol, cakes with racist or homophobic messages, cakes criticizing God” and even cakes celebrating Halloween as these conflict with his religious beliefs. He believes that God’s intention for marriage is the union of one man and one woman. If there is a more real-life version of Ned Flanders, I have not seen him.
When Phillips creates a wedding cake, he truly “creates” it. He sits down with the couple and seeks to understand them and their union. He sketches out a design and makes a one of a kind baked masterpiece. He puts his heart and soul into the creation which is quite literally a work of art.
To keep things balanced, I would normally describe the gay couple, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins as well, but their backgrounds and religious beliefs were not relevant to the Court’s decision. Therefore, the Court’s Opinion did not address them in detail, so I cannot provide a description here.
Now for the important part of the case. When Craig and Mullins entered the shop, they requested a wedding cake to celebrate their marriage. Phillips told the couple, “I’ll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same sex weddings.” Phillips clearly did not refuse to serve Craig or Mullins, he simply refused to make one particular type of cake that was against his moral convictions. It is also worth noting that gay marriage was not even recognized in Colorado in 2012.
Obviously, the situation did not end there. The couple sued, and the case went to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The law required the CCRC to be neutral and fair in considering the Constitutional rights of both parties. However, the Supreme Court found the CCRC was not only unfair toward Phillips, but it also displayed “elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”
From the decision:
On July 25, 2014, the Commission met again. This meeting, too, was conducted in public and on the record. On this occasion another commissioner made specific reference to the previous meeting’s discussion but said far more to disparage Phillips’ beliefs. The commissioner stated:
“I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. 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, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.” Tr. 11–12.
To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere. The commissioner even went so far as to compare Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law—a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.
From this record, it seems clear the CCRC considered his religious beliefs to be ridiculous and unworthy of protection.
Furthermore, there was existing Colorado case law where the CCRC stated “on at least three occasions that a baker acted lawfully in declining to create cakes with decorations that demeaned gay persons or gay marriages.” In these cases, the CCRC protected the baker not because of the content of the message, but because the baker should not be compelled to make a cake inconsistent with his or her beliefs. In the Phillips case, the CCRC wanted to do just the opposite. You could say the CCRC wanted to have its cake and eat…oh, never mind.
There are a few takeaways from this decision, which will likely limit the impact of the decision:
- Had Phillips not been so consistent and sincere in his religious beliefs, the case might have been decided differently;
- Had Phillips refused to serve the plaintiffs at all, the case would almost certainly have been decided differently; and
- As the old adage goes, hard cases make bad law. Both the plaintiffs and the defendant fully believed they were doing what was right. This is why I really dislike this case; based on the facts presented, I feel both parties deserved to be treated consistently with their beliefs. Unfortunately, those beliefs turned out to be in direct conflict.
I hope this post helps you understand the case from what I intended to be a neutral point of view. If you have any questions, contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.