Why This Case Is Critical to the Future of Religious Freedom and Freedom of Speech

COMMENTARY Religious Liberty

Why This Case Is Critical to the Future of Religious Freedom and Freedom of Speech

Dec 1, 2017 4 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, DeVos Center

Emilie Kao was a Visiting Fellow for Heritage’s DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family.
Baker Jack Phillips decorates a cake in his Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado U.S. September 21, 2017. Rick Wilking/REUTERS/Newscom

Key Takeaways

Americans must be allowed to think with their minds, speak with their mouths, and work with their hands according to their religious beliefs.

Colorado has violated Jack Phillips' First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion, by compelling him to design custom cakes for same-sex weddings.

The Supreme Court should protect the First Amendment freedoms of Americans who believe in traditional marriage, which takes nothing away from anyone.

This week, the Supreme Court will consider the case of Jack Phillips, a Colorado cake designer who owns Masterpiece Cakeshop. Although Phillips has served people regardless of sexual orientation for more than 20 years, his decision to decline to create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding got him in trouble with the law. Colorado punished him by ordering him to create cakes for same-sex weddings and to teach his employees, including family members, the state’s view of marriage, against his own conscience.

In this case, the Supreme Court will determine how much power government authorities have to override the consciences of those who dissent from the government’s view of marriage. The points below answer basic questions about this important case and explain why respect for religious freedom and free speech hurts no one and why protecting our Constitutional freedoms benefits all Americans.

Who is Jack Phillips?

Jack Phillips is a Christian cake artist in Colorado who serves all customers, but does not create all messages expressing all ideas for all events if they conflict with his religious beliefs. He has declined requests expressing anti-American, anti-faith, and anti-gay themes.

A same-sex couple brought a complaint against him to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission under the state’s public accommodation law, alleging that he committed sexual orientation discrimination by declining to create a custom cake for their wedding at a time when Colorado had not yet recognized same-sex marriage.

What is this case all about?

This case is about whether states violate the First Amendment’s rights to free speech and free exercise of religion when they force citizens to express messages that violate their beliefs. Jack Phillips argues that when the state of Colorado tries to force him to design and bake a cake to celebrate a same-sex wedding it is forcing him to speak a message celebrating an event that violates his religious beliefs. The First Amendment protects our freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with our religious beliefs.

Why does this case matter?

If the Supreme Court says Jack can’t act in accordance with his beliefs about marriage, it might one day also say that faith-based schools and charities can’t act in accordance with their beliefs. Many professions could be affected. Authorities in medicine, law, counseling, child welfare services, and education could make support for same-sex marriage a condition for contracting, funding, grant-making, licensing and accreditation. In recent years, people in the high-tech industry, academia, government, emergency services, and entertainment have lost their jobs because they supported traditional marriage or did not affirm same-sex marriage. For instance, the military recently suspended a service member from command for declining to affirm a colleague’s same-sex partner.

Why does Jack call himself a “cake artist” and how is freedom of speech at stake in this case?

Jack combines his knowledge as a pastry chef with his artistic skills (sketching, painting, sculpting) to create unique elaborate custom cakes for his clients that express messages and ideas. As an artist, he should be able to create custom-order cake designs according to his beliefs.

Why does Jack claim the state treated him unfairly?

Any individual who walks through the doors of Masterpiece Cakeshop is welcome to purchase premade items. But Jack will not create custom cakes that celebrate events or express messages that conflict with his faith, including cakes that celebrate Halloween, contain anti-American or anti-family themes, or promote atheism, racism, or indecency. The same Colorado Commission that punished Jack allowed three other cake artists to decline to create custom cakes that express religious views opposing same-sex marriage. The Commission punished Jack because his beliefs are different than theirs. All people should be free to live and work consistently with their beliefs. The First Amendment does not allow the government to target a specific religious belief for disfavored treatment.

Can I support same-sex marriage and Jack Phillips?

People can and do support both same-sex marriage and Jack Phillips, because they know what’s at stake. This case is far bigger than marriage. If the government can force an artist like Jack to create custom art against his faith and cripple his business if he doesn’t, it can do the same thing to any artist or creative professional, no matter what belief they hold.

What is the significance of Jack’s case for all Americans?

We all have beliefs that we hold dear. For some people like Jack, those beliefs are religious. For others, those beliefs relate to issues like politics or matters central to their identity. If Jack is forced to create custom artwork that celebrates events in conflict with his core convictions, others could be similarly compelled to create various forms of expression that violate theirs. The government could force a Muslim singer to perform at a Christian religious event or a Democratic speechwriter to draft speeches for a Republican candidate. All Americans are worse off in that kind of world.

Why is religious freedom at stake in this case?

Jack is being forced to violate the faith that motivates his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop. Religious freedom protects far more than the “freedom to worship” at a synagogue, church, or mosque. People want to live their lives with integrity. Religious freedom protects our right to live according to what we believe in every area of our lives: at school and at work, in public and at home. Religious freedom is a barrier that protects each individual’s conscience from invasion by the government or by a cultural majority.

Why should the law protect Jack’s right to follow his religious beliefs after the Supreme Court’s decision that redefined marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges?

America has always protected those who don’t conform to the majority’s views. In war, we accommodate pacifists so they can be true to their beliefs. We exempt doctors and nurses from performing abortions or lethal injections so they can be true to their beliefs. Our disagreements on the meaning of marriage are no different.

Is protecting Jack Phillips’ right to follow his religious beliefs about marriage like protecting the beliefs of those who opposed interracial marriage?

When the Supreme Court redefined marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, it stated that opposition to same-sex marriage rests on “decent” and “honorable” premises. By contrast, in Loving v. Virginia, the Court said that laws against interracial marriage were an odious attempt to preserve white supremacy. Comparing the two is historically inaccurate and corrodes our discourse.