The Masterpiece Cakeshop Case Is About Discrimination, Not Dessert

The Supreme Court today is hearing oral arguments in what will likely be a very important case for religious freedom.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission concerns a baker in Lakewood, Colo., who insists that the principle of religious freedom gives him the right to refuse to serve members of the LGBTQ community and others. The baker, Jack Phillips, is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative legal group that has for years vigorously opposed LGBTQ rights. (Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the same-sex couple who were denied the ability to purchase a cake in Phillips’ shop, are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.)

AU staff members rally for fairness outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

The bakery is seeking a right to use religion as a vehicle to discriminate. If the court rules in its favor, that could create a huge loophole in the nation’s civil rights laws. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for-profit businesses are expected to serve members of the public equally without regard to race, religion or national origin.

Many state and local laws extend that same protection to other groups, like women and LGBTQ people. But if Phillips wins, businesses could cite religious objections and refuse to serve any member of those protected groups. Members of the LGBTQ community, single mothers, non-believers, non-Christians and a host of others could find themselves excluded from stores, shops and businesses because they don’t conform to the dictates of a business owner’s personal theology. (Former AU staffer Sarah Jones does a great job debunking ADF’s claims here.)

We’ve been down this road before. In the mid-1960s, Maurice Bessinger, the owner of a chain of barbecue restaurants in South Carolina named Piggie Park, refused to serve African Americans, because, he said, basic civil rights “contravenes the will of God.” Bessinger, an unrepentant segregationist all of his life, argued that he had a religious-freedom right to violate the Civil Rights Act. When the matter went to the Supreme Court, he lost.

Religious freedom protects your right to worship, or not, as you see fit. But it does not confer the right to control the actions of others or infringe on their rights. It’s not a license to treat entire groups of people like second-class citizens.

As AU attorneys noted in a brief they filed in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, if businesses are granted a constitutional license to violate antidiscrimination laws, then any person “could be refused employment, thrown out of a hotel, or barred from purchasing a cup of coffee just for being of the ‘wrong’ religion (or race, or sex, or sexual orientation), and no federal, state, or local authority or law could do anything to remedy the situation.”

Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. But it should never be used to sanction any form of discrimination.

P.S. Americans United will be well represented at the high court today. Erin Hagen in AU’s Field Department is among the speakers participating at a rally outside the court this morning. Several AU attorneys will be inside listening to the argument, and Liz Hayes, assistant editor of Church & State, will be in the press gallery. We’re not likely to see a ruling until well into next year, but AU will have more to say about this crucial case in the days and weeks to come.