July 20, 2017
by John Kaempf

The important religious freedom issue raised by Oregon’s “Sweetcakes by Melissa” gay wedding-Christian bakery case will be decided in 2018 by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case from Colorado called “Masterpiece Cakeshop.”

Jack Phillips owns Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in a small Colorado town. In the summer of 2012, two men came into his shop one afternoon asking him to make a cake for their gay wedding. Jack responded: “I’m sorry, but I can’t promote messages that violate my beliefs, though I’d be happy to sell you anything else.”

Phillips has been a Christian for over thirty-five years and believes in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He also believes that decorating cakes is a form of art, that he can honor God through his artistic talents, and that he would displease God by creating cakes for same-sex marriages.

Shortly after Phillips refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding based on his religious beliefs, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission sued him for sexual orientation discrimination. The ACLU joined the lawsuit by representing the same-sex couple.

Phillips admits that his bakery is a place of “public accommodation,” and that he refused to sell the men a cake because of their intent to engage in a gay marriage ceremony.

The Commission issued an order that required Phillips and Masterpiece to (1) take “remedial measures,” including comprehensive staff training and alteration of the company’s policies to ensure compliance with the Colorado Anti–Discrimination Act, and (2) file quarterly compliance reports for two years describing the “remedial measures” taken. Masterpiece was also required to (3) document all patrons who were denied service and the reasons for the denial.

The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed these agency decisions, and the Colorado Supreme Court refused to take the case.

However, on June 26, 2017, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in the Court’s 2017-2018 term.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case is virtually identical to, and will essentially decide, the “Sweetcakes by Melissa” Christian bakery-gay wedding case in Oregon, which is currently pending in the Oregon Court of Appeals. In that case, the Christian bakery owners were ordered by the State of Oregon to pay $135,000 in “damages” to a lesbian couple after they refused to bake a cake for their wedding based on their sincerely held religious beliefs.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop and Sweetcakes cases raise very important First Amendment Free Exercise of Religion issues that go far beyond the rights of Christian bakers.

Therefore, anyone with an interest in religious freedom should follow these cases closely.

The important issue the cases raise is whether applying a “public accommodations” law to compel the Christian owner of a bakery to create something that violates their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the free speech and/or free exercise of religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Contrary to what many in the media say, these cases are not about “discrimination.” Rather, they are about the First Amendment rights to freely exercise religion and engage in free speech.

It appears that new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, nominated by President Trump this year, a conservative justice who supports religious liberty, as noted in another article in this newsletter, could tip the balance in favor of religious liberty and free speech.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which, again, will effectively decide the Sweetcakes case from Oregon, will occur in 2018.

The resolution of this issue could be affected by the retirement or death of a Court justice. It is important to note that “swing” Justice Kennedy voted with the majority in the Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. While retirement rumors surround Justice Kennedy, as discussed in another article in this newsletter, it seems unlikely that he would voluntarily leave the Court until Masterpiece Cakeshop is decided, especially given that President Trump is certain to replace him with a more conservative justice. Justice Kennedy may want to solidify the Obergefell gay marriage decision by ruling against the Christian bakery. Or, he could rule that the First Amendment religious and free speech rights of the Christian baker essentially outweigh gay rights. The Masterpiece Cakeshop case thus raises a highly interesting clash of constitutional rights.