WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012.
The 7-2 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission could be a landmark ruling for freedom of religion and conscience cases.
The majority opinion was delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a separate opinion concurring in part, and concurring in the judgment.
The Masterpiece Cakeshop case dates back to July 2012, when owner Jack Phillips was asked by two men to bake a cake for their same-sex wedding ceremony.
He explained to the couple that he could not cater to same-sex weddings – to do so would have been a violation of his Christian beliefs. He said he has also declined to make a number of other types of cakes, including cakes for Halloween, bachelor parties, divorce, cakes with alcohol in the ingredients, and cakes with atheist messages.
The couple then filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for discrimination.
The commission ordered Phillips to serve same-sex weddings and to undergo anti-discrimination training. In a hearing in 2014, the civil rights commissioner Diann Rice compared his declining to serve same-sex weddings to justifications for the Holocaust and slavery.
Alliance Defending Freedom took up Phillips’ case in court. He lost before an administrative judge in 2013, who ruled that the state could determine when his rights to free speech unlawfully infringed upon others’ rights.
Phillips then appealed his case to the state’s human rights commission, which ruled against him. He appealed again to the state’s court of appeals, which also ruled against him. The Colorado Supreme Court did not take up Phillips’ case.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. It was re-listed repeatedly throughout the winter and spring of 2017, before the Court decided to take the case.
Phillips had said that he started his Lakewood, Colorado, business in 1993 as a way to integrate his two loves – baking and art – into his daily work. Philipps named his shop “Masterpiece” because of the artistic focus of his work, but also because of his Christian beliefs. He drew from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, specifically the commands “no man can serve two masters” and “you cannot serve both God and mammon.”
“I didn’t open this so I could make a lot of money,” Phillips said of his business, speaking at a panel event last September. “I opened it up so that it would be a way that I could create my art, do the baking that I love, and serve the God that I love.”
Throughout the ordeal, Phillips said, he has paid a heavy price for his stand, losing 40 percent of his family’s income and more than half his employees.
Phillips said he began receiving threatening phone calls shortly after the couple left the store. One death threat was so severe, his sister and niece at the store had to hide in the back room until police arrived.
Attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom argued that the First Amendment protects Phillips’ right to freedom of expression as an artist.
“[J]ust as the [Human Rights] Commission cannot compel Phillips’ art, neither may the government suppress it,” the legal group said, adding that the conflict between Phillips’ freedom as an artist and the wishes of his customers should be solved by the citizens themselves, and not by the government.
The ruling is expected to have far-reaching results, particularly in determining the extent of religious liberty protections following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. Florists, photographers and other wedding vendors have also faced lawsuits alleging discrimination for declining same-sex ceremonies.
“There is far more at stake in this case than simply whether Jack Phillips must bake a cake,” the U.S. bishops’ conference and other Catholic groups had stated in an amicus brief. “It is about the freedom to live according to one’s religious beliefs in daily life and, in so doing, advance the common good.”
“[T]his could be one of the most important First Amendment cases in terms of free speech and the free exercise of religion in a century or more, and it could be a landmark, seismic kind of case of First Amendment jurisprudence,” Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) said last September in a press conference at the U.S. Capitol.