A Colorado baker who became the focus of legal battles over religious freedom and same-sex marriage hopes his time in the spotlight is over after a Supreme Court victory last year and a resolution to a subsequent case.
“I hope this is the end of my legal battles, and that I can return to my quiet life as a cake artist,” said Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., a Denver suburb. “I love creating my cake art for all people. What I can’t do is create custom cakes that express messages or celebrate events in conflict with my religious beliefs.”
In a March 8 Denver Post opinion essay titled “Can I just be a cake artist again?”, Phillips said this “should be OK because a truly tolerant society tolerates different convictions. The First Amendment protects the peaceful exercise of my beliefs, and it protects my choice of what not to say and what not to celebrate. It protects you as well.”
Philips said he opened Masterpiece Cakeshop in 1993 and focused his talents on artistic cakes. He developed his talents through “countless art classes and years of practice.” He believes his cakeshop has become an “art gallery of cakes.”
In 2012, he said, he became the target of state officials who were “unabashedly hostile to my faith.”
That year, Phillips declined a same-sex couple’s request to make a wedding cake for their union on the grounds that doing so would violate his religious beliefs, although he did offer to create a different cake. Colorado law did not recognize same-sex unions as marriages at the time.
The couple filed a lawsuit against Phillips and in 2013, a Colorado judge sided with the plaintiffs. He ordered Phillips to receive anti-discrimination training and to serve same-sex weddings or stop serving weddings altogether. He chose to stop serving weddings.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission then ruled that by declining to make the cake, the baker had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law categorizing sexual orientation as a protected class.
In the commission’s unanimous 2014 vote against the baker, then-Commissioner Diane Rice said: “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we ... can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use—…to use their religion to hurt others.”
In Phillips’ view, Rice “blasted my (and your) constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom as a ‘despicable piece of rhetoric’.”
“She and her colleagues forced me out of the wedding industry, costing me 40 percent of my business. In their eyes, it seemed, my religious beliefs were incompatible with participation in a tolerant society,” he said in the Denver Post. “In other words, my beliefs were intolerable.”
Rice’s words were later cited in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy commented that tolerance is “essential in a free society” and said Colorado officials had been “neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’s religious beliefs.”
In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phillips with a 7-2 decision in the case, known as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It said the officials had shown “clear and impermissible hostility” towards Phillips’ religious beliefs and had acted inconsistently in other cases where bakers had refused to create cakes with messages to which they objected.
After that decision, Phillips thought he was “vindicated,” saying, “I hoped that I could return to being just a cake artist.”
But another case was pending.
In June 2017 lawyer Autumn Scardina ordered a cake to celebrate the anniversary of a “gender transition,” pink on the inside and blue on the outside, and Phillips declined on the grounds of his religious beliefs.
He was again put before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which issued a formal complaint against the cakeshop in October 2018 on the grounds he had discriminated on the basis of gender identity.
Phillips said he decided to “push back” because “no one should be driven out of business because of their religious beliefs.” Represented by attorneys at the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group, he filed a legal challenge against the commissioners, the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and other state officials.
“Those legal proceedings revealed an even deeper hostility toward my faith than previously known,” he said. One state commissioner had called him a “hater” on Twitter, while two others had publicly endorsed Rice’s “anti-religious” statements.
In January, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Wiley Daniel had said the lawsuit could proceed, given there is evidence of unequal treatment of Phillips “sufficient to establish they are pursuing the discrimination charges against Phillips in bad faith” motivated by his religion. Phillips “adequately alleged his speech is being chilled by the credible threat of prosecution.”
The judge allowed departing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to be dropped from the suit because he was leaving leaving office. Gov. Jared Polis was not added to the suit.
State officials later agreed to drop the case.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said March 5 that both parties agreed “it was not in anyone’s best interest to move forward with these cases.”
“The larger constitutional issues might well be decided down the road, but these cases will not be the vehicle for resolving them,” he said, adding “equal justice for all will continue to be a core value that we will uphold as we enforce our state’s and nation’s civil rights laws.”
In his essay, Phillips said he hoped that the United States can “learn to tolerate and respect our differing beliefs” and that “governments stop harassing people whose faith they dislike.”
“If that happens, then maybe, just maybe, I can go back to being just a cake artist.”
The Supreme Court case came amid increased advocacy from influential LGBT groups and others against broad religious freedom protections.
The case was a focus of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, a San Francisco-based private family foundation with half a billion dollars in assets, which gave at least $500,000 to LGBT-supportive groups on advocacy and public relations campaigns related to Masterpiece Cakeshop in 2017 and 2018. The fund is one of several large funders which have committed nearly $10 million in various anti-religious freedom grants, according to CNA reports.
The Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling on Masterpiece Cakeshop was one of several recent cases involving the collision between legal recognition of same-sex marriage and the freedoms of speech and religion. Florists, photographers, and other wedding industry professionals have been involved in lawsuits about whether they can be required to create works of art for same-sex weddings to which they hold religious objections.
The rise of same-sex marriage and strict anti-discrimination laws and regulations have helped to close Catholic adoption agencies and others that decline to place children with same-sex couples.