AMERICA, the land of the free and the home of the brave. What’s the phrase mean to you? To me, it means all Americans who are brave enough to follow their dreams and find their own niche in life are free to live as they choose—according to their own principles—as long as they don’t harm others or break the law.
The US Supreme Court has agreed to take up a Colorado case in which both sides say their separate constitutional rights were violated. It raises the question: Whose constitutionally guaranteed rights matter most?
Here’s the dispute in a nutshell: In 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins wanted a special cake to mark their marriage, so they visited the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado. The owner, an artistically gifted and religious man named Jack Phillips, politely said, “I’ll make you birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies. I just don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.” Doing so, he said, would violate his Bible-based beliefs.
The aggrieved couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. They argued that Phillips’ slight wasn’t just about a cake; it was about discrimination. “He simply turned us away because of who we are,” Craig said.
The commission ruled the baker had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law that says businesses may not deny service based on a customer’s race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Phillips was ordered to provide wedding cakes on an “equal basis”—i.e., to any customer willing to pay for one.
Then the Colorado Court of Appeals also ruled against Masterpiece Cakeshop.
Phillips, who’s been described as a “cake artist” with a shop that is an “art gallery of cakes,” took a financial hit and simply stopped creating his popular wedding cakes. And he appealed the case to the Supreme Court, believing that his constitutional rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech are as important as the couple’s.
Phillips wrote an impassioned letter to The Denver Post, saying, “There is no policy at my shop, real or imagined, that says, ‘We don’t sell cakes to homosexuals’.” Phillips said he will sell any cake in his display case to anyone who asks. However, he wrote, “I won’t design a cake that promotes something that conflicts with the Bible’s teachings. And that rule applies to far more than cakes celebrating same-sex marriages. I also won’t use my talents to celebrate Halloween, anti-American or anti-family themes, atheism, racism, or indecency.”
In other words, don’t come to Phillips looking for one of those anatomically correct gag-gift cakes for a bachelorette party. The man clearly has a set of principles he lives by.
It should be noted here that in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. Even before that, the state of Colorado had enacted several laws legalizing same-sex unions and protecting those in them. So, Craig and Mullins seem to stand on solid legal ground, right?
But wait a minute. Don’t laws that protect the couple also punish the sizable portion of the population trying to live life as the Bible instructs, those religious citizens whose faith prevents them from embracing birth control, abortion, the death penalty and, yes, same-sex marriage?
“That’s not just my government telling me what I can and can’t do,” Phillips wrote. “That’s my government telling me what I can and can’t believe. They’re treading way beyond my cake shop—and deep into my soul.”
I can certainly sympathize with a couple who want to celebrate their happiness with a special dessert and then have their hopes dashed. But I can also sympathize with a hardworking entrepreneur who tries to live a faith-filled life.
As the highest court in the land considers this case of competing constitutional rights, it’s a good time for the rest of us to ponder the underlying issues of individual choice, freedom of opinion and the common-sense idea of real and lasting harm done versus a perceived harm.
I know what the law says, but there is a flaw if one person’s constitutional rights are deemed less important than another’s.
I’m thinking there were lots of other bakeries available to Craig and Mullins, so they could have gotten what they wanted. And Phillips sees only one suitable path in life to walk if he wants to keep his principles intact. It makes me wonder whether we will ever reach a point in this country when adversaries amicably agree to disagree and walk away without calling a lawyer.