In December of last year, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case that will likely become one of the most important in American judicial history.
Why should you care? Because the precedent set by this case directly affects you. It determines if you really do have the right to freedom of speech and expression, or if you can be legally compelled to act against your conscience.
It’s a bit surprising that in 2018, 227 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, we’re still debating what that First Amendment actually means—or really, if it actually means anything.
The Masterpiece saga began in 2012. Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a gay couple from Colorado, traveled to Massachusetts to get married because gay marriage was not yet legal in their home state. The couple returned home to Colorado to plan their reception. Craig visited Jack Phillips, the (very conservative) Christian owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, to request a custom-made wedding cake. Believing that baking a cake for a gay wedding conflicted with his religious convictions, Phillips refused to design the cake.
Craig and Mullins still got their cake—it was designed by another local bakery—but they weren’t about to drop the issue. The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, claiming that Phillips had violated the state’s public accommodations law, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
Craig’s complaint evolved into a lawsuit against Phillips, which Craig won. Phillips was ordered to provide cakes to gay weddings if requested, to provide training to his staff (comprised mostly of his family), and to provide quarterly reports for the next two years detailing the steps the bakery has taken to avoid discrimination while validating that no gay customers have been denied wedding cakes.
Phillips refused to comply. He stopped making wedding cakes (costing him 40 percent of his business from the bakery), filed an appeal, and promptly lost. The Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and now here we are, looking to the nation’s top nine robes for guidance.
This is not a case about gay marriage – that was decided in Obergefell v. Hodges. This is also not a case about religion. This is a case about freedom of speech and expression, and what the government can and cannot make you say or do.
Of course, there is danger in allowing religion to be invoked as an acceptable justification for any action. In such a world, discrimination would be the least of our worries. Theft, rape, and even murder could be explained away with a simple appeal to unbridled religious freedom.
The Court acknowledged this in Employment Division v. Smith. In a majority opinion authored by the highly conservative and highly religious late Antonin Scalia, the Court held that two members of a Native American church couldn’t collect unemployment benefits after being fired from their jobs for ingesting the illegal drug peyote, even though the drug was used for religious purposes.
So why is the Masterpiece case any different? Simply put, the issue in Masterpiece is not a religious one. It’s an issue of freedom of speech and expression.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that most bakers in America would refuse to bake a cake for the KKK. For most people, an abhorrence to violent racism does not stem from some religious doctrine, but from simply being a decent person.
In Masterpiece, Phillips’s beliefs stem from his religion, but that shouldn’t matter. What matters is whether he can be legally compelled to contribute to a cause with which he fundamentally disagrees. Sadly, the highly contentious and politically charged issues of homosexuality and religion have overshadowed the real issues of freedom of speech and expression.
Advocates of LGBTQ rights have viewed the case as an affront to their ideologies, without realizing that their own freedoms are at stake.
The precedent set by this case will determine the rights of the local LGBTQ center that doesn’t want to rent its community room to a Christian Bible study that teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman.
It will determine the rights of the print shop owner who decides she’s not going to print banners spewing white supremacist rhetoric for the neo-Nazi rally in her town.
Or consider the example provided by Solicitor General Noel Francisco of a gay opera singer forced to sing at the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church because he would be willing to sing at other churches.
Throughout the oral arguments, Phillips’s defense maintained that by refusing to design the cake the baker was objecting not to the people, but to the message he was sending by providing a cake for a gay wedding.
But could this, as opponents charge, be a mere cover-up for discrimination against the couple’s identities as homosexuals? Let’s look at the facts. Phillips has said that he has no problem selling cakes or any other baked goods to gay people. It’s the purpose of the cake that violated his conscience. He offered Craig and Mullins any of the cakes in his shop, but he refused to specially design one for their wedding. By creating the cake, Phillips felt that he was endorsing gay marriage, which contradicts his religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.
And now we wait. We likely won’t know the outcome of the Masterpiece case until the Court recesses this June, but as we await the verdict, we should remember that our freedom is hanging in the balance.
The precedent set by Masterpiece will determine the rights of gay artists to refuse to paint a homophobic mural, of Christian screenwriters to object to penning X-rated content, and of African-American caterers to refuse to service a white supremacist event.
And so, I urge everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, to join me in backing the baker.