Business owners have the right to decide with whom they want to do business, correct? Not in the case of the Denver baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
On Friday, Denver administrative law judge Robert Spencer told Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, that he discriminated against Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a legally married couple from Massachusetts, when he told them in 2012 he wouldn’t bake them a wedding cake, because doing so would violate his Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin.
The judge didn’t assign any damages, but told Phillips he cannot refuse gay couples in the future. Phillips has said he’d rather close his shop than bake cakes for gay marriages.
"I am a follower of Jesus Christ," Phillips said in July. "So you could say it’s a religious belief. I believe the Bible teaches [same-sex marriage is] not an OK thing."
The growing legal acceptance of gay marriages across the country suggests that marriage equality is becoming established under the law, but the extent to which Christian businesses have to abide by such marriages is still being tested across the country.
Indeed, the ruling is at the vanguard of a Constitutional dilemma. To wit: in cases where personal and religious values and beliefs are in play, where does the freedom to practice religion end and equal treatment under the law begin?
Lawyers have also argued that, at least in the case of baking cakes, the First Amendment also comes into play, raising the question of whether an artist or craftsman can be compelled by the government to create objects against his or her wishes.
In just the past few years, a Mennonite bistro in Iowa, a Kentucky art gallery, and a New Mexico photography shop have faced civil and legal complaints from gays who say their rights were violated when the business owners refused to serve them.
Business owners, for their part, continue to argue that the government can’t compel Christians to “express ideas and messages they decline to support,” according to Jordan Lorence, a senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, who added in an interview with The New American that “America was founded on the fundamental freedom of every citizen to live and work according to their beliefs.”
So far, civil rights agencies and courts have issued similar rulings to the one in Denver on Friday. Earlier this year, the New Mexico Supreme Court weighed in on a seven-year-old case where a lesbian couple argued that Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, both Christians, discriminated against them when they refused to take pictures at their same-sex ceremony.
The Supreme Court agreed with the lesbians, writing that “a commercial photography business that offers its services to the public, thereby increasing its visibility to potential clients, is subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of the [New Mexico Human Rights Act] and must serve same-sex couples on the same basis that it serves opposite-sex couples.”
The legal battle has also drawn comparisons to civil rights struggles by blacks, where some arbitrators have concluded that refusing to serve gay couples is the same as lunch counters refusing to serve blacks in the Jim Crow era.
"Being denied service by Masterpiece Cakeshop was offensive and dehumanizing especially in the midst of arranging what should be a joyful family celebration,” Mr. Mullins said on Denver’s KDVR TV Friday. "We are grateful to have the support of our community and our state, and we hope that today’s decision will help ensure that no one else will experience this kind of discrimination again in Colorado."
Gay marriages are banned in Colorado, but civil unions are okay. Under law, businesses are not afforded special religious protections.
"At first blush, it may seem reasonable that a private business should be able to refuse service to anyone it chooses," Judge Spencer wrote on Friday. "This view, however, fails to take into account the cost to society and the hurt caused to persons who are denied service simply because of who they are."
Legal experts believe the US Supreme Court may have to ultimately adjudicate the argument. If the high court does, it may hear evidence compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union in a series of stings on Christian wedding businesses.
In January, according to the ACLU, a woman called Phillips and asked if he’d bake a cake for a wedding between two dogs named Buffy and Roscoe. Phillips agreed. For his part, Phillips has said he doesn’t mind gay people, but can’t in good conscience bake cakes for ceremonies that, in his view, undermine his beliefs.