The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple will have a huge impact on LGBTQ rights.
On December 5, the Supreme Court will hear arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a major case that could — depending on its outcome — mark a significant rollback of LGBTQ rights. The question before the Court is whether a business open to the public has the constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of factors like religious belief or sexual orientation — a question to which Attorney General Jeff Sessions answers a resounding “yes.”
Let’s take a closer look at this momentous case, and the impact the ruling could have on LGBTQ rights in America.
What’s the story behind Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission?
In July 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins planned to celebrate their wedding with friends and family in their home state of Colorado, which at the time did not recognize same-sex marriage (the couple had officially married in Massachusetts). When Craig and Mullins met with Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, to discuss their wedding cake, Phillips refused to design a custom wedding cake for the couple. As a Christian, Phillips contended that designing a cake in celebration of a same-sex wedding would violate his religious beliefs. He also argued that because his cakes are a form of artistic and creative expression, being forced to create a cake that was against his religious beliefs hindered his right to freedom of expression.
How did this case get to the Supreme Court?
Craig and Mullins filed a complaint against Phillips with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission under the state’s public accommodations law, which prohibits businesses open to the public from discriminating against customers on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. The complaint resulted in a lawsuit, which was decided in favor of Craig and Mullins in 2015. In the ruling, Phillips was ordered to create wedding cakes for any couple, regardless of sexual orientation. Phillips refused to comply with the state’s orders and filed an appeal. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the state’s decision that baking a cake is not an expression of free speech nor an exercise of free religion, and refusing to bake cakes on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, etc. is discriminatory. After losing this appeal, Phillips petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, and the Court agreed.
So what’s going to happen in December?
It’s impossible to say how the court will rule in December, despite the couple’s repeated victories in the lower courts. In September the Trump administration issued a memo in support of Phillips. In its brief, the DOJ argued that, “A custom wedding cake can be sufficiently artistic to qualify as pure speech,” and that by forcing Phillips to create a cake for a same-sex couple he’d essentially be forced to “participate in a wedding celebration that conflicts with his sincerely held religious beliefs.” The DOJ’s position in this case is just one of several efforts the Trump administration has taken to roll back Obama era positions in support of LGBTQ rights.
What will the outcome mean?
If the Supreme Court reverses the decisions of the lower courts and rules in favor of Phillips, it could be disastrous for the queer community and other groups that face discrimination. If a bakery can discriminate against gay couples on the basis of free speech, the door could open for broader discrimination from a variety of businesses — restaurants, dry cleaners, florists, photographers — even doctors and healthcare specialists.
Should the Supreme Court condone discrimination in the case of an intolerant Colorado baker, the door will open for homophobes across industries to discriminate under the guise of “freedom of expression.” The risk this potential ruling poses for the civil rights of the queer community should not be taken lightly.
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