Another ‘Gay’ Cake? Supreme Court of the United States Ruling

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favour of a Christian baker who refused to produce a cake for a same-sex marriage. Below, we reflect on the result, and examine what this means for the Ashers case. 

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Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled 7:2 in favour of Christian cake artist Jack Phillips, who refused to produce a cake for the wedding celebration of a same-sex couple because it went against his religious beliefs.[1]

Jack gave evidence that he serves all people who come through the doors of his Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado. He testified that he could not however, use his creative talents to make a custom cake which would endorse something which goes against his religious beliefs.

This US legal battle dates back to July 2012 when two customers, Mr Mullins and Mr Craig, went to Jack Phillip’s Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a custom cake to celebrate their same-sex marriage later that year. Mr Phillips politely declined, as he believed that making this cake would amount to endorsing same-sex marriage - something which goes against his Christian beliefs. Instead, he offered to design them custom cakes for other occasions or to sell them other items in his shop. Jack had also previously declined to make cakes for Halloween celebrations, a bachelor party, or even a cake which celebrated divorce. In the days that followed, Jack received a number of harassment phone calls, and the same-sex couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission subsequently ruled in favour of the couple, and found that Phillips had discriminated against them. After a Colorado court upheld that ruling, Phillips took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

Sound familiar? We’ve had our own piece of ‘gay cake’ controversy here in Northern Ireland when in May 2014, Ashers Bakery, a local Christian business ran by the McArthur family, refused to decorate a cake with a message which supported same sex marriage. It’s important to note that Jack Phillips refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, in comparison to Ashers, who refused to ice a cake with a message supporting same-sex marriage.

To be clear, Jack, like the McArthurs, did not discriminate against a person, or in this case persons, because of their sexual orientation. The doors of his Masterpiece Cake Shop have been, and continue to be open to everyone. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), who were representing Phillips before the Supreme Court make it clear, “Jack serves all people- he just won’t create all messages.”

It’s important to note the comments of a Colorado civil rights commissioner during a public hearing at an earlier stage in the case. He said, “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history…and to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to use their religion to hurt others.” The Supreme Court found this language was inappropriate for a Commission which is charged with ‘fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s anti-discrimination law- a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.’

The SCOTUS decision is thus of major importance for anyone concerned about religious freedom and could perhaps mark a change, or at least a stemming of the tide in a sea of litigation seeking to erode religious freedom. It comes only 3 years after the Obergefell v Hodges case which legalised same-sex marriage across the United States. It remains to be seen how this decision around the facts of this specific case will impact similar religious freedom cases. As it stands, we are still waiting to find out whether the Supreme Court of the United States will hear Barronelle Stutzman’s case. Barronelle is a florist from Washington who refused to create a custom floral arrangement for a friend and longtime customer’s same-sex wedding because it went against her religious beliefs. These cases are complicated and touch upon people’s identity, relationships, rights and freedoms.

Ashers is therefore by no means the first case involving a fight for religious freedom - and against compelled speech. It is also unlikely that it will be the last. The reality is that we are free to have our beliefs and we are free to act in accordance with those beliefs. ADF Senior Counsel Kristen Waggoner points out, “Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential…[the SCOTUS] decision makes clear that the government must respect Jack’s beliefs about marriage.”[2]

Whether it’s flowers or cakes, our freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a freedom worth defending. The reality is that a threat to religious freedom anywhere, is a threat to religious freedom everywhere. In this same way however, we can also draw encouragement that a win for religious freedom in the US, is hopefully a win for religious freedom elsewhere.  It remains to be seen whether the SCOTUS decision will influence the UK Supreme Court’s decision on the Ashers case and whether in their view, the McArthurs should be compelled by law, to produce a cake which endorses a message which goes their deeply held religious beliefs.

[1] Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

[2] https://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/press-release-details/us-supreme-court-rules-in-favor-of-colorado-cake-artist