In July 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins walked into a bakery called Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado to order a cake for their wedding. They left without placing an order. Instead, they reported the incident to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission because the bakery’s owner, Jack Phillips, refused to make a cake for their wedding and Colorado’s anti-discrimination law forbids public businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Phillips stood by his decision, arguing that his First Amendment religious free exercise and speech rights were violated because he has a religious objection to marriage equality and baking a wedding cake for Craig and Mullins would go against this right. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found Phillips to be in violation of the law, the Colorado Court of Appeals made the same ruling after Phillips appealed the decision further, and the Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the case. But Phillips didn’t give up there. Now, after conferencing on the case 19 times, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Phillips.
In her reporting on the oral arguments, Rewire.News Vice President of Law and the Courts Jessica Mason Pieklo outlined the case’s implications. She warned that such an outcome could “hand evangelicals a sword to slice through nondiscrimination laws in upwards of 30 states and municipalities that have them—and possibly even federal civil rights protections.” Fortunately, for now, the Court didn’t rule one way or the other on whether, as Mason Pieklo put it, “baking a cake is speech and therefore can be protected by the First Amendment.” The narrow ruling only applies to this one baker in this case. However, it left “that very important question to a future, and likely more conservative Supreme Court, to answer,” Mason Pieklo added.
As I’ve read piece after piece about this case since it started making its way to SCOTUS, I’ve struggled with the fact that our highest courts are even debating a case like this in 2018. My struggle comes from the concern that businesses are even challenging restrictions on their ability to assert such bigoted beliefs. But then I think about where our country is today and it makes sense. Our culture has a long way to go before such hate no longer exists. But this case hits me from many angles, as a person who works toward a better society each day, and as someone who makes wedding cakes on the side.
Straight out of college, I found jobs that would not only pay my rent, but would allow me to explore my many interests. I started my social justice career working part-time as a legal assistant for a criminal public defender who represented people seeking post-conviction relief. Every other day, I worked part-time as a cake decorator, learning from bakers and artists the immense skill it takes to make cakes that are both delicious and look beautiful. After spending hours on cases that reiterated to me how broken our criminal justice system is, I would recover in a bakery that was hectic but also rejuvenating. I decorated cakes and cupcakes by the dozen and helped customers looking for taste-bud excitement and beautiful desserts for their many life celebrations.
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I would regularly sit down with couples planning their wedding day to taste cake flavors and help them envision their wedding cake. While I wasn’t skilled enough to decorate wedding cakes yet, I would frequently speak on the phone to couples who would call to confirm their orders—sometimes also calming their nerves and letting them know that we had it all taken care of. After I left these jobs and pursued social justice work full-time, I continued to bake and decorate cakes for friends and family when desired.
Since then, I have had the honor of giving people wedding cakes that meet their standards and add to their special day. I have designed and baked cakes that meet the vegan needs of my friends, have incorporated old family recipes into each layer, and have finished cakes with toppers that are particularly important to the couple.
Then, after making many cakes and attending numerous weddings, I finally hosted my own celebration last summer. And, coincidentally enough, I married a baker.
When we asked one of our talented friends to make our cake, we felt excited and relieved when she said yes. Between all of the other things that needed to get done to make our wedding happen, knowing that a cake we wanted was in the hands of our first choice was both comforting and helpful.
Being denied such an experience because someone doesn’t agree with your decision to marry shouldn’t be taken lightly—and it should be illegal.
One of the dozens of amicus briefs filed in support of Craig and Mullins came from a group of 222 chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs. In this brief, recognizable names and voices in food, including José Andrés, Anthony Bourdain, Padma Lakshmi, and Christina Tosi, fundamentally disagree with Phillips’s argument and insist that “food preparation is not a core First Amendment activity.” While they don’t disagree that cooking is more than just a “chore” and “hobby” for them, the chefs and bakers recognize that the minute you open up a business—which may sell baked or cooked food—you are required to follow the laws that come with that, including those around discrimination. “Anti-discrimination laws merely demand that chefs and others treat all customers equally: what is offered to some must be offered to all,” they argue. Originating in 1964 as part of the Civil Rights Act, anti-discrimination laws today exist in almost all states and legally prohibit restaurants from discriminating against potential customers.
Throughout his own legal arguments, Phillips has claimed that his creativity is at risk in this case. In a Washington Post op-ed he published in April, he invoked this defense yet again. Phillips said that if SCOTUS rules against him, “that sort of ruling will also exclude people who share my beliefs from certain artistic work and creative professions.” In their brief, the hundreds of chefs and bakers argue against Phillips on this point, saying that anti-discrimination laws don’t hinder personal expression in their work: “No anti-discrimination law would require a vegan chef to serve meat, or a kosher restaurant to offer a shellfish item .… Compliance with anti-discrimination laws does not require a chef to suppress his creativity; it merely compels him to channel that creativity in a way that serves all patrons equally.”
Sadly, the Supreme Court justices didn’t clarify any of these concerns in their majority opinion.
A wedding cake is a culturally and historically significant symbol, dating back centuries, evolving over time, and adapted from culture to culture, family to family, couple to couple. My personal experience has taught me how important wedding cakes can be, despite how trivial they may seem. It has also shown me that the person who bakes that cake is someone you should be able to trust for that one aspect of such an important day. But, just as the chefs and bakers’ amicus brief notes, “no matter how central the cake is to the wedding celebration, the baker of that cake has no centrality.” What is central to the exchange between a baker and a soon-to-be-married couple is the law that protects them from facing discrimination for ordering something that is part of their wedding experience. That is something, as Mason Pieklo explained, for a future Court to decide.
What I would ultimately love to see, and hope to see in my lifetime, is a culture change where cases like this never arise and, if they do, are thrown out. While sadly this is not the culture we live in today, legal practitioners and advocates who seek to defend the rights of LGBTQ people should continue fighting for a future free of religious imposition. And people in all industries who hope and work for a society where religion doesn’t exempt someone from consequences for hateful acts should remain determined.
Anti-discrimination laws have moved our country forward from some of the most painful and shameful aspects of our past, despite our culture not yet catching up. This culture change is something for which we have to keep working, whether or not the Supreme Court decides in our favor.