15 December 2017

The freedoms at stake in the gay cake case


On December 5, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It’s a case that raises important questions about freedom of speech and of association that even the most fervent supporters of equality for gay people ought to take to heart.

In July 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple, visited Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver to order a custom wedding cake to celebrate their nuptials. Jack Phillips, the shop’s owner and a practising Christian, was happy to sell the couple any of the goods in the store, but he refused to create a bespoke cake for a gay wedding, arguing that it would contravene his religious beliefs.

Craig and Mullins bought their wedding cake from a different bakery and went ahead with their happy event. The couple also filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that oversees the enforcement of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act – a law prohibiting businesses open to the public from discriminating against their customers on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

A lower court ruling decided in favour of the plaintiffs. The bakery was ordered to provide cakes for same-sex marriages and to “change its company policies, provide ‘comprehensive staff training’ regarding public accommodations discrimination, and provide quarterly reports for the next two years regarding steps it has taken to come into compliance and whether it has turned away any prospective customers”.

The Cato Institute, where I work, has been at the forefront of the fight for gay equality, submitting amici curiae briefs in favour of the gay community in such ground-breaking cases as Lawrence v Texas, which decriminalised sodomy in the United States in 2003, and Obergefell v Hodges, which legalised gay marriage throughout the country in 2015. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, we have taken Phillips’s side.

There is no inconsistency here. Just as we would support a gay baker’s right to decline to convey a homophobic message, we support this Christian baker’s right to decline to celebrate a same-sex wedding. That is because Masterpiece isn’t really about religious liberty – apart from claims that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission itself treats the religious and nonreligious differently, something that concerned the swing Justice Anthony Kennedy at oral argument – but about freedom of speech.

As my learned colleagues wrote, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held “that what the First Amendment protects is a ‘freedom of the individual mind’, which the government violates whenever it tells a person what she must or must not say. Forcing a baker to create a unique piece of art violates that freedom of mind…

“Although making cakes may not initially appear to be speech to some, it is a form of artistic expression and therefore constitutionally protected… Indeed, the Supreme Court has long recognised that the First Amendment protects artistic as well as verbal expression, and that protection should likewise extend to this sort of baking – even if it’s not ideological and even if done to make money.”

No matter which side wins, the final decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission is likely to reverberate for many years to come. That’s because the case does not deal with government discrimination, which everyone abhors, but with private discrimination, which is, in some fashion, unavoidable. Each day, all of us discriminate against things (which car to buy), actions (where to eat) and people (who to go out with).

The law says that private discrimination is fine so long as it does not involve a business, which ought to be open to everyone. That’s a perfectly fine legal distinction, but not a logical or moral one. Consider the following scenario:

Suppose that you operate a private dining club – such as the one described by Dana Bate in her superb 2013 book Girls’ Guide to Love and Supper Clubs. You rent a space where you can indulge your passion for cooking and choose from a list of paying gourmands in accordance with your preference for, exempli gratia, straight people. Is that discrimination? No court has ruled so. Yet, Bate’s supper club is basically a business, except for incorporation. Were you to incorporate, you would be guilty of discrimination. Without it, you are free to do as you please.

So, private discrimination is not cut and dried. As one of the pioneers of gay marriage, the British-born writer Andrew Sullivan, noted, advocates of gay equality ought to acquire some perspective. “I think it was a prudential mistake to sue the baker,” he wrote. “Live and let live would have been a far better response.” That’s where Cato stands as well.

Marian L. Tupy is senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity