Baker Jack Phillips speaks with the media following oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
WASHINGTON: The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared sharply divided in the closely watched case of a Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, with pivotal Justice Anthony Kennedy voicing concerns about endorsing discrimination against gay people but also about anti-religious bias, reportedÂ Reuters.
The nine justices — five conservatives and four liberals — heard an intense, almost 90-minute argument in the dispute over whether certain businesses can refuse to serve gay couples if they oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons.
The case involving Jack Phillips, a baker who runs Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denverâs suburb of Lakewood and turned away gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012, pitted Coloradoâs anti-discrimination law against rights to freedom of speech and expression under the U.S. Constitutionâs First Amendment.
Kennedy, an 81-year-old champion of gay rights and free speech who wrote the landmark 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, did not definitively indicate how he would vote in the ruling due by the end of June, posing tough questions to both sides.
He raised concerns about a decision siding with the baker that would give a green light to discrimination against gay people.
âIt means that thereâs basically an ability to boycott gay marriages,â said Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the courtâs four liberals in major cases on divisive social issues.
The courtâs liberals would likely side with him on that point, with several justices citing a range of other creative professionals who could deny service to gay customers if the baker wins, as some florists and wedding photographers already have done.
The bakerâs lawyers at the conservative Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom argued that creating a custom cake is a form of free expression protected by the Constitution. Lawyers for Mullins and Craig said it the bakerâs action was simply unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan wondered about whether a hairstylist, chef or a makeup artist could refuse service, claiming their services are also speech protected by the Constitution.
âWhy is there no speech (rights) in creating a wonderful hairdo?â Kagan asked.
But Kennedy also asked whether the Colorado civil rights commission that concluded that Phillips had violated state law was biased against religion, which could indicate he could yet side with the baker.
Conservative members of the court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, appeared more sympathetic to the baker in one of the biggest cases of the courtâs current nine-month term. Roberts asked whether a Catholic nonprofit organization providing free legal services should be forced to take on issues that conflict with its religious stances.
Phillips is appealing a state court ruling that he violated a Colorado anti-discrimination law that bars businesses from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation.
âAFFRONT TO THE GAY COMMUNITYâ
Expressing his concerns about anti-gay discrimination, Kennedy mentioned the possibility of a baker putting a sign in his window saying he would not make cakes for gay weddings.
âAnd you would not think that an affront to the gay community?â he asked Solicitor General Noel Francisco, a lawyer for the Trump administration, which has backed Phillips.
Kennedyâs comments about the Colorado Civil Rights Commissionâs handling of the case were more supportive of the baker. Kennedy said there was evidence of âhostility to religionâ and questioned whether that panelâs decision should be allowed to stand.
âTolerance is essential in a free society. Tolerance is most meaningful when itâs mutual,â Kennedy said. But the commission was not âtolerant or respectfulâ of Phillips, he added.
Former commissioner Diann Rice said at a 2014 hearing that âfreedom of religion, and religion, has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust.â
Hundreds of demonstrators on both sides of the dispute rallied outside the white marble courthouse. Supporters of Phillips waved signs that read, âWe got your back Jack.â As Mullins and Craig made their way into the courthouse, the two men led their supporters in chants of âLove Wins.â
After the arguments, Mullins told reporters the coupleâs snub by Phillips made them feel mortified and humiliated, like âsecond-class citizens in our society.â
Mullins and Craig are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued that Phillipsâ legal team is advocating for a âlicense to discriminateâ that could have broad repercussions beyond gay rights.
Phillips told reporters that the backlash against his business after his refusal has included death threats and harassment, adding, âWe are struggling just to make ends meet and keep the shop afloat.â
âItâs hard to believe,â Phillips said, âthat the government is forcing me to choose between providing for my family and my employees, and violating my relationship with God.â
Story first published: 6th December 2017