Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips was decisively vindicated by last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning an order by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ordering him to bake cakes for same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The order stemmed from a 2012 incident in which the Christian baker declined a request from a same-sex couple that he provide a wedding cake for them, on the grounds that doing so would contradict his religious convictions. The state commission subsequently ruled that he must provide such cakes when requested, a decision later upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeal.
But the U.S. Supreme Court last week overturned the civil-rights commission, finding it had manifested a “clear and impermissible hostility” toward Phillips’ “sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”
Speaking afterward with Register senior editor Matthew Bunson June 8, Phillips explained that he has no hostility toward “LGBT” persons and continues to serve them and all other individuals who come to his bakery without restriction, except when customers request baked goods bearing messages to which he objects on grounds of conscience. And although the legal struggles have severely injured his business, he stresses that the situation also has deepened his faith and improved his family life.
Phillips’ lawyer, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco, also participated in the interview to discuss the legal issues in play and the implications of the Supreme Court decision.
We would be very interested in your reaction to the SCOTUS ruling.
Phillips: My reaction is I was thrilled with it. I thought it was a really good ruling and a big win for religious liberty.
What has been the impact of the litigation on your livelihood? Our readers are especially interested in knowing the impact this has had on both your business life and your personal life.
Phillips: Business wise, when the Colorado courts ruled I had to start baking same-sex wedding cakes, we had to give up our wedding business, which was 40% of our business at the time. I had 10 employees and went down to four employees, counting me. Personally, it increased my faith; our family life is so much stronger — relationships with my sisters and everybody has been really good.
Certainly when you open a business, especially a bakery business that makes wedding cakes and other things for special events, you don’t expect to become part of a national controversy. Have you been surprised you have become such a focus of national attention?
Philips: It is a surprise. I was just trying to run my bakery here, according to my faith, and the principles that guide that. One thing is: I serve everyone who comes in my shop, including the two men that came in that day. I offered them anything in my shop — birthday cakes, cookies, brownies. I welcomed them. I serve everybody. I would serve them today. There are just cakes people ask me to make that I can’t create because of the messages they portray. That’s always been the case. You always have to discern which messages you’re going to create and which you are not.
And to that point, the media focuses heavily on the refusal to bake cakes for same-sex weddings, but you’ve also refused to provide cakes for divorce parties and other celebrations that violate your religious beliefs. What’s behind that particular policy you have?
Phillips: There are numerous cakes we don’t create, including Halloween cakes, anti-American cakes or cakes that disparage someone in any way — including if somebody wanted a cake disparaging someone who identified as “LGBT.”
So it’s not exclusive to same-sex wedding cakes, and that was a point you were trying to make to the commission, wasn’t it?
Phillips: Yes, it’s always the message of the cake; it’s never the people who ask me for the cake. These two gentlemen would be welcome in my shop any day; they were welcome that day, and I’d offer to make them anything else in my shop other than one of those cakes. The message of that cake conflicts with my deeply held religious beliefs. And the U.S. Supreme Court indicated this.
Jeremy Tedesco: There’s a huge difference between declining based on the message and declining on who the person is. Jack has never done the latter. ... He’s always been motivated by the kind of cakes, the message or the nature of the event he’s being asked to celebrate.
The majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy noted especially the behavior and language used by the civil-rights commission in Colorado. Could you comment on the language that was used and the importance and significance of the fact that the majority opinion looked at that?
Phillips: Yes, the language that they used — the commissioner called religious freedom a despicable piece of rhetoric. She also compared not making a cake for a same-sex wedding with the perpetrators of the Holocaust and slave owners. I think that’s just ridiculous. My dad was a World War II vet who fought in France and Germany. He got a Purple Heart for a wound he received in France. They sent him back to England and patched him up, sent him back to Germany, and he was actually part of a group that helped liberate one of the first concentration camps — Buchenwald. He knew what those were like and spoke of that. For them to compare this to that was just ridiculous.
What do you say to those who question whether a business should be imposing these kind of limits on who it will and will not serve?
Phillips: I think businesses should serve everybody, but they shouldn’t be compelled to create cakes in my case, or anything that conflicts with their deeply held religious beliefs. And again, the court vindicated that and gave us [a] good [ruling for] religious freedom.
Tedesco: One thing about the opinion I think lots of people missed, because they’re so focused on whether it was narrow and all these other things: But one of the things that Justice Kennedy and the majority opinion said was that religious people can bring their religious beliefs into the marketplace. It’s not like you have to leave your religious convictions at the door to your shop. The other side … that is a mantra for them. They routinely, not just in litigation and in court, but in the culture, take the position that religious people can believe whatever they want, but they can’t bring it into the marketplace, into the community. The Supreme Court expressly addressed that and said that’s not true: that people who have really religious convictions about marriage and other issues can bring those to bear in their daily lives and their public lives. That’s a really important thing.
Are you reassured by this decision? Are you worried in any way? This was decided in a narrow way, from the court’s standpoint.
Tedesco: The court, obviously, in its opinion, said there are other cases that are going to be decided on their own facts. But this case isn’t limited just to Jack. It’s a big win for religious freedom. The court said that government hostility toward people of faith had no place in our society. That’s an important principle that’s going to protect people of all faiths. The court also talked about, like I said, that religious people can bring their religious beliefs into the marketplace. It also said that the state can’t take these kinds of laws and discriminatorily enforce them and treat some people with certain views better than other people. That’s what the state of Colorado was doing. So there’s a lot of really important broad principles in the decision that are going to help people of faith and, really, people of no faith, going forward. Because the idea is we need to respect and tolerate people who disagree with us, and that’s the takeaway from this decision.
So you see this as not a watershed moment, but one significant moment in what is an ongoing debate and a series of legal questions in the conflict of religious liberty and other rights. Would that be fair?
Tedesco: Yes, there’s no question this did not resolve everything. But it was an important step forward in protecting religious freedom and in reaffirming the idea that respect and tolerance are crucial in a free society like ours. That approach to people we disagree with is what makes our society work. It’s the glue that holds us together.
Have you heard from other Christian wedding vendors or others that are sympathetic to your cause? What have they told you?
Phillips: I really haven’t had much time to be in touch with people. So I don’t have an answer for that now.
Finally, where do you go from here?
Phillips: From here, we are anxious to get back into the wedding business. We had a much larger crew then than we have now, so we have to find the right people to get everything going again.
From the ADF standpoint, where do we go from here?
Tedesco: Well, we have Barronelle Stutzman case, the florist in Washington, before the Supreme Court. So we’ll find out in a few days, weeks at most, what’s going to happen in Barronelle’s case. And we have quite a few similar cases in the lower courts that are presenting very similar issues to Jack’s case.
So litigation and public debate and the debate in court are going to continue. The decision in Jack’s case affirms that people with religious convictions should be able to win in these cases. We expect that in all of them.
By a narrower vote, or is this a pattern we could look forward to?
Tedesco: It’s so hard to speculate on that. My takeaway is that when the court addresses the broader issue, they’re going to be addressing whether creative professionals can be forced by the government to create art that violates their beliefs. I can’t imagine only getting a slim majority saying that that violates the Constitution. Because that kind of an issue, a ruling in that kind of a case, is going to impact everybody, regardless of their beliefs. Whether religious or non-religious — a gay/lesbian graphic artist shouldn’t be forced to create flyers for religious events criticizing same-sex marriage. A ruling against Jack, a ruling against creative professionals in the narrow context of same-sex marriage, would require the same result in a case like that. I don’t think the court is going to want to go there. And it shouldn’t. The First Amendment protects that kind of creative freedom. It gives artists the right to decide the content of their artistic creations. The government has no business dictating what that is.
Is there anything else to add?
Tedesco: I just want to add that, like many faithful Christians who operate these kind of artistic shops, Jack serves everybody. He just doesn’t create all cakes, or celebrate all events, with his art. And that’s just such a critical distinction that I don’t think we can lose in this debate. Jack loves and serves everybody. He just doesn’t use his art to celebrate every event.