The Baker’s Day In Court: Issues In Colo. Case Go Way Beyond Access To Cake

The Supreme Court this month is hearing oral arguments in an important case regarding the definition of religious freedom.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was brought by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal group, on behalf of Jack Phillips, a Denver-area baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Phillips claims that his religious beliefs should exempt him from a Colorado law that bans discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. He also insists that he is a “cake artist” and that expecting him to make the cake violates his First Amendment rights.

Neither argument is persuasive. Phillips is essentially seeking to use religious freedom, a noble and important principle, as a cover for an ugly form of discrimination. Some business owners tried the same thing during the Civil Rights era, arguing that their religious beliefs taught white supremacy or opposed “race mixing.” The courts didn’t buy it then, and they shouldn’t now.

Phillips’ free-speech argument is even less compelling. He’s a baker. His cakes may be pretty, but they are hardly the same thing as a novel or a painting. In fact, Phillips refused to serve the couple as soon as he found out they were gay. He didn’t even bother to ask what kind of cake they wanted.

Although this case revolves around a bakery, the issues go way beyond cake. If Phillips and the ADF win, a broad right to use religion as a vehicle to discriminate against others could be established. The owners of lots of other businesses may start refusing service not just to members of the LGBTQ community but to non-believers, single moms, cohabitating couples, members of minority faiths or indeed anyone whose way of living “offends” the owner of the shop. (That’s why Americans United and its allies have filed a legal brief in the case against Phillips.)

The courts shut the door on discrimation years ago. It is best left unopened.

Phillips is making a shabby attempt to turn religious freedom into a device to harm others by treating them like second-class citizens. The Supreme Court should reject it.