Why Is the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case a National LGBT Rights Issue?

A wedding cake seems unlikely to become a national gay rights and free speech issue, but that’s precisely the case  the Supreme Court will analyze this week, as justices deliberate over whether cake shops and related services should have a license to discriminate.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, LGBT rights and free speech

On December 5, the Supreme Court will hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and deliberate over whether applying Colorado’s gay-inclusive nondiscrimination laws — specifically, its public accommodations provisions — unconstitutionally compelled the petitioner to violate his religious beliefs and First Amendment rights.

At the heart of this case is a seemingly simple issue: In 2012, Denver cake shop owner Jack Phillips refused to make a wedding cake for Charlie Craid and David Mullins. The couple then sought relief through Colorado’s civil rights division, claiming that they had experienced unlawful discrimination. The civil rights division and the state courts agreed.

Normally, the matter might have ended there. But, with the self-described Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom behind him, Phillips has now made this a national issue.

A narrow case? That depends who you ask

Phillips believes that, as art, his wedding cakes represent a significant extension of his own personal beliefs and speech. As such, a requirement to make wedding cakes for same-gender couples would violate his deeply held religious beliefs and create an unconstitutional burden by implying that he supports same-gender marriage.

At the same time, though, Phillips contends that he provides other goods for same-gender couples — like cakes for baby showers. He claims to simply want an exemption from creating goods associated with same-gender marriage. Phillips also points out that the couple could have gone elsewhere to get a wedding cake, meaning that they did not experience an unusual burden.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has routinely taken on cases that would undermine marriage equality and trans rights, so this debate is part of a much wider battle. It’s also worth noting the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the ADF as a hate group from its long history of anti-LGBT statements and actions.

In yet another stark reversal from the Obama administration’s position, the Trump administration has backed Phillips’ case –therefore siding with a hate group. Justice Department officials maintain that this narrow exemption would not impact gay people, only reaffirming religious rights.

“Forcing Phillips to create expression for and participate in a ceremony that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs invades his First Amendment rights,” the Justice Department contends in its amicus brief on this issue. “In the view of the United States, a … First Amendment intrusion occurs where a public accommodations law compels someone to create expression for a particular person or entity and to participate, literally or figuratively, in a ceremony or other expressive event.”

The Trump administration maintains that compelling Phillips to make cakes for same-gender couples would mean others also have to provide goods for groups that they may not agree with — for example, products with Nazi slogans or other clearly offensive articles.

Not all legal analysts are convinced by this line of argument, however.

The ACLU, which has a notable record of defending free speech rights for both the political left and right, backs the same-gender couple in this case.

The group contends that this seemingly small exemption could be widened to harm LGBT couples in many other realms. For example, several others cases have tried to carve out exemptions from providing services like flowers, photography and wedding venues. And it would be difficult to forget Kim Davis, who tried to use her religious beliefs as reason to withhold same-gender marriage licenses.

The ACLU also contends that if the Court rules in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, all other protected classes could then be discriminated against based on the service provider citing personal religious beliefs.

“Our clients in the Masterpiece case have already felt the stinging harm of being turned away from a business simply because of who they are, a harm that no one should ever have to endure,” James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and HIV Project, explained. “A ruling in this case to give businesses the right to refuse service to customers would shatter longstanding non-discrimination laws and have wide impacts on religious and racial minorities, single mothers, people with disabilities, and others. ”

The ACLU is joined by over 50 businesses in signing on to a statement calling on the Supreme Court to affirm the dignity of LGBT people. The word dignity holds a specific meaning, as it was this notion that the Supreme Court expressed when it ruled in 2015 that same-gender marriage bans are unconstitutional. The ACLU emphasizes that granting business owners the ability to discriminate based on private religious views does not enhance their religious expression. Instead, it only curtails the constitutional rights of others and renders them second-class citizens.

This will be the first major test of a gay rights issue since the same-gender marriage ruling — and also since Neil Gorsuch filled the seat left by Justice Antonin Scalia. While Scalia was infamous for his “dead” reading of the Constitution and his notable trend of ruling against LGBT rights, Gorsuch also has a track record of anti-LGBT positions. And he’s already noted his skepticism of the Obergefell ruling.

While, legally speaking, this case might appear narrow, the fallout could be anything but. And the coming ruling could prove to be a decisive moment either in defending civil liberties or eroding them in the name of a so-called religious right to discriminate.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Karen H
Karen H9 days ago

A "Christian" is someone who follows "Christ" - NOT Paul. Where does JESUS say same-sex unions are wrong? Paul was a racist, misogynistic homophobe, and the church follows HIS teachings and not Jesus'.

Chrissie R
Chrissie R14 days ago

Thank you for posting.

Eric Lees
Eric Lees15 days ago

@pam w "I don't care if he wants to discriminate but he really SHOULD put up a sign which lists all the people he will serve. That will avoid any issues....unless, of course, it's his intention (and secret pleasure) to HUMILIATE same-gender couples?"

Agreed a business should have that right and be free to have it openly displayed. The market voluntarily would punish a business for blatant discrimination. Just as we should be free to choose not to support such a business.

Tyranny is not progress. Peace & Liberty is real progress.

Eric L
Eric Lees15 days ago

It has more far reaching consequences than that. If a business owner's right to choose their customers is not respected by the government then we do not live in a free country. We become slaves to the will of the State.

What right does the government have to intervene and force what should be a voluntary exchange?

The right to discriminate is a basic human right. Why would anyone want to give that right up and let the government force you to do business against your will?

Greta H
Greta H15 days ago

Thank you

Benjamin B
Benjamin B19 days ago


Paulo R
Paulo R22 days ago


Paulo R
Paulo R22 days ago


Angela J
Angela J23 days ago

Thank you.

Vincent T
Vincent T25 days ago