By Andres Del Aguila
WASHINGTON – In a landmark case that pits the First Amendment against civil rights, the Supreme Court on Tuesday questioned whether a product provided as a public accommodation can be considered speech.
“We want some kind of distinction that will not undermine every civil rights law,” Justice Stephen Breyer said during oral arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., refused to bake a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins in 2012. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission determined that Phillips violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodation that is based on protected characteristics.
Phillips appealed the decision, arguing Colorado is violating his First Amendment rights due to his deeply held religious belief that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.
Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner, told the Supreme Court that the state is forcing her client to use his speech to support a message that he opposes.
“The First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing people to express messages that violate religious convictions,” Waggoner said. “Yet the Commission requires Mr. Phillips to do just that, ordering him to sketch, sculpt, and hand-paint cakes that celebrate a view of marriage in violation of his religious convictions.”
Waggoner insisted that her client is opposed to the message – not Craig and Mullin’s identity as gay men.
Justice Neil Gorsuch explained that if the objection is to the person then “that’s when the discrimination law kicks in.”
Frederick Yarger, Colorado’s solicitor general, argued that Phillip’s decision was based on Craig and Mullin’s sexual orientation.
“The message in this case, your honor, depended entirely on the identity of the customer who was ordering the cake,” Yarger told the Court.
David Cole, the lawyer representing Craig and Mullins, echoed Yarger’s argument that the discrimination was based on the respondent’s sexual orientation.
Cole warned the Court could set a dangerous precedent if it rules in favor of Phillips.
“We would live in a society in which businesses across this country could put signs up saying we serve whites only, music lessons for Muslims need not apply, passport photos not for the disabled.”