The Fundamentals of Expression: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission – Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, JD

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, JD
Founder/President, G.LO.B.A.L. Justice

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments for and against the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case today. This case has been hailed as one of the most important religious freedom cases in contemporary legal history. Indeed, the facts of the case make it legally interesting, but the implications of the case make it legally and morally significant.

The facts – Jack Phillips, who owns and runs the Masterpiece Cakeshop near Lakewood, Colorado, is not just a baker but also an artist and even more so a Christian. He provides a range of baked products, but his specialty is custom designed wedding cakes that he handcrafts. He conducts his business and creates his designs based on his Christian faith and principles. The name of his bakery even connects to Scripture, and he makes choices consistent with his faith – such as not making Halloween cakes or offensive depictions. The issue in this case arose, when two male individuals who were regularly his customers, asked him to create a cake for their same-sex wedding. Although Jack did not have an issue having them as customers, he was not able to make a wedding cake for them without violating his Christian principles and perspectives related to marriage. The couple sued and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission instituted a series of requirements and regulations of Jack’s work, either forcing him to make the cake, or forcing him to stop baking any wedding cakes. Despite losing appeals in Colorado courts, Jack’s case has now come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The significance – to some, Jack Phillips’ declining to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple harkens back to the civil rights era when African Americans were denied service at lunch counters and other service providers. But there is a major distinction between the civil rights era cases and this one. Jack never denied service and did not discriminate against the same-sex couple. They had been customers of his bakeshop. What Jack did was decline to make a wedding cake that violated his religious and artistic perspectives on marriage. The concept of marriage is at the core of many religious perspectives, particularly the Christian faith. And both religious and artistic expression are fundamental rights. As such, what makes this case significant is that the civil rights violation at issue is not about discrimination against a same-sex couple, but whether Jack’s First Amendment rights to religious and artistic expression can be infringed by them in this case.

Both from a human rights and constitutional rights perspective, religious freedom is considered a fundamental and foundational right — fundamental in that it is not granted by government, but instead inherent to each person, and foundational in that other rights extend from that right. For example, the right to hold a belief also extends to expressing that belief. That right to believe in a religion also extends to the right to believe in other things – such as political perspectives. The right to religious expression also extends to other expressions, such as the right to artistic expression.

But it’s important to note that rights are never completely free and always connect to other rights. Some rights may even compete against other rights. For example, if the couple had a right to a wedding cake, that right may compete against the religious rights of the baker. In this case, the same-sex couple certainly has the freedom to request a wedding cake but there is no right to have a wedding cake from this particular baker. They cannot compel the artist to create the cake. The compulsion impedes on First Amendment rights to religious and artistic expression.

If we consider the facts in other scenarios, the significance of this case is clearer. If Jack had been an atheist and was requested by a Christian, Muslim, Jew or other religious person to make a cake for their religious ceremony – would the atheist be compelled to do that? If a Jewish deli was requested by someone that is not Jewish to offer items that were not kosher, would the deli be compelled to do so? If a Native American party planner was compelled to organize an event for Columbus Day – would they be compelled to do so? It would be highly unlikely in these or many other instances that the government would compel such business owners to go against their beliefs in support of the customers’ requests. And it would be highly problematic if the government did compel them.

That is what is at issue in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. It is not about whether or not a same-sex couple received a wedding cake. It is about whether a person of faith or other beliefs can exercise that faith or belief in their business practices. If the U.S Supreme Court supports the Civil Rights Commission’s decision to compel and regulate Jack Phillips as a baker and artist, then they create the proverbial slippery slope where a myriad of other scenarios raise legal and business challenges. And governmental compulsion and regulation would then directly conflict with the First Amendment – which is fundamentally not a curb on individual freedom, but a curb on how the government controls those freedoms.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.