Cake dispute turns into highly visible First Amendment religious football

10/6/2017, 11:31 a.m.
Sometimes a wedding cake is just delicious. And sometimes it is a First Amendment football. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s ...

Religion News Service

Sometimes a wedding cake is just delicious. And sometimes it is a First Amendment football.

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s term that began Monday, the nation’s highest court will hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a.k.a. “The Cake Case.” It stems from 2012 when two gay men visited a Lakewood, Colo., bakery in search of a wedding cake. The owner-baker, who is Christian, turned them away. The case has been in court ever since.

What argument will each side make? Will this be another landmark decision? And when is a cake not just a decadent dessert, but an expression of deeply held religious beliefs?

The facts

In 2012, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, a Denver gay couple, wanted a wedding cake from Masterpiece Cakeshop. Owner and baker Jack Phillips refused, saying to do so would violate his deeply held Christian beliefs. The couple filed discrimination charges against Mr. Phillips and won before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and in the state courts.

What will the baker argue?

Mr. Phillips’ lawyers have argued that two of his First Amendment rights — freedom of religion and freedom of expression — were violated. They lost. Pundits predict Mr. Phillips’ attorneys will emphasize the freedom of expression angle before the U.S. Supreme Court. They say this is because the expression argument — Mr. Phillips considers himself an artist who expresses himself through baked goods — is stronger than the religion argument.

To win under the religion argument, Mr. Phillips’ lawyers would have to prove that Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws are not religiously neutral — that they “burden” people of one particular faith. But the courts, in the past, have upheld those laws as neutral.

So the freedom of expression angle may be stronger. Mr. Phillips’ lawyers may argue his cakes are a form of art and art is a form of speech, so the law cannot compel him to make a speech — or a cake — supporting gay marriage.

David Cortman, one of Mr. Phillips’s lawyers, told The New York Times, “Every American should be free to choose which art they will create and which art they won’t create without fear of being unjustly punished by the government.”

What will the couple argue?

The couple’s lawyers don’t buy the cake-is-speech thing. They say Mr. Phillips is discriminating against them the way some businesses would discriminate against black people and other minorities, refusing to serve them or sell to them.

Who is going to win?

Some legal scholars say Mr. Phillips can take hope from the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which established that corporations have free speech rights. There is long legal precedent that prohibits the government from compelling speech.

“It seems clear that a pro-life baker could not be forced by the state to provide a cake for a Planned Parenthood office party with the inscription ‘Pro-Choice,’ ” Eric Segall, a law professor at Georgia State University wrote on SCOTUSblog. “Whether Phillips’ wedding cakes are communicative enough to warrant similar protection, or whether Colorado’s interest in fighting discrimination against gays and lesbians is compelling enough to override that protection, are difficult questions, but they relate exclusively to free speech, not religion.”