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Supreme Court Hears Colorado Bakery Case Highlighting Clash Between US Laws


FILE - The Supreme Court in Washington, at sunset, Oct. 10, 2017.

Do U.S. laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation infringe on religious freedom and freedom of expression?

The question lies at the heart of Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, one of the closely watched cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Justices are hearing oral arguments in the case on Tuesday, more than two years after the high court handed down a landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

The case involves a Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who refused to design a custom cake for a gay couple's wedding in 2012.

FILE - Figurines are depicted in an embrace as part of the wedding cake display at Masterpiece Cakeshop, Denver, Colorado, June 6, 2013.
FILE - Figurines are depicted in an embrace as part of the wedding cake display at Masterpiece Cakeshop, Denver, Colorado, June 6, 2013.

Phillips, a Christian "cake artist," told the couple that while he was happy to sell them other baked goods, he could not bake them a wedding cake because doing so would be tantamount to participating in a religious ceremony to which he objected.

The couple complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and later sued Phillips. The commission and state courts found that Phillips had violated Colorado's anti-discrimination laws. Colorado is one of 22 states that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Phillips appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the state's anti-discrimination law violated his religious freedom and freedom of expression, both protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Mastershop's supporters — among them, the Trump administration — argue that the First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing individuals to participate in ceremonies to which they object.

Civil rights organizations assert that personal and religious beliefs can't be used to violate the Constitution's promise of equal protection under the law.

Stephen Wermiel teaches constitutional law at the American University Washington College of Law and talked to VOA about the case.

Can you walk us through the case and how it ended up in the Supreme Court?

The case involves a bakery and its owner in Colorado. The bakery serves the general public, sells all sorts of bread, croissants and things to anybody who comes in. It also has a specialty of wedding cake baking. And the owner refuses to bake wedding cakes for same-sex marriages. He says that it violates both his religious views and also to be ordered to make such cakes for same-sex couples would violate his freedom of expression. He considers the cakes to be a form of expression and that this would interfere.

His argument there is essentially that he would be being forced to express points of view that he doesn't agree with if he has to make a cake for a same-sex couple and he believes that same-sex marriage is immoral or inappropriate. He'd be being forced to endorse same-sex marriage against his own views and that violates his freedom of expression.

And the second aspect of the argument is the "Free Exercise Clause" of the First Amendment?

Yes. He believes same-sex marriage is inconsistent with his religious views … that, therefore, being forced to serve same-sex couples with wedding cakes would violate his freedom of religion, his right to free exercise of religion.

In recent years, there have been a number of similar cases involving small businesses refusing service to same-sex couples. What is different about Masterpiece?

These issues have been out there for a while. I think the time may simply have come that the court felt this issue is prevalent enough or rising enough that it needs to go ahead and weigh in and try to settle the issue.

Is this case about gay rights or the First Amendment?

Yes. The case really pits two values against one another. (The petitioner) basically says this is about his First Amendment rights and not being forced to take positions that he disagrees with, either expressively or religiously.

The state and the parties supporting the state (say) he's entitled to object to same-sex marriage all he wants but he doesn't have a right to discriminate, that this case isn't about his freedom, it's about the discrimination laws of the United States being upheld.

Some of the briefs raise parallels between this and earlier eras of discrimination in the United States. For example, there were segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s that believed they had religion and God on their side. They believed that God had intended to separate the races and they had a religious right to continue to segregate. And the courts have pretty roundly rejected those arguments and said that Congress had a right to pass a public accommodation law requiring businesses not to discriminate on the basis of race and various other characteristics. So this raises some pretty profound issues that we've been dealing for many decades in a different form.