Colo. Bakery Did Discriminate Against Gay Couple

Despite two rulings affirming that Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., violated state law by refusing to serve a same-sex couple, LGBT advocates caution that similar attempts to subvert antidiscrimination laws are likely.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

June 02 2014 4:53 PM ET UPDATED: June 03 2014 11:14 AM ET

Charlie Craig, left, with his husband Greg Mullins

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission determined that a bakery owner in the Denver suburb of Lakewood violated the state's nondiscrimination law when he refused to sell a cake to a gay couple who wanted to celebrate their recent nuptials.

The Commission affirmed an administrative law judge's ruling that Masterpiece Cakeshop violated state law when the owner, Jack Phillips, refused to bake a cake to celebrate Charlie Craig and Greg Mullins' wedding. In so doing, the commission rejected an appeal from the bakery owner, who claimed Colorado's existing antidiscrimination laws violated his religious freedom.

In addition to rejecting the bakery's appeal, Friday's decision also requires Masterpiece Cakeshop to change its discriminatory policy, undertake staff training, and provide a quarterly report to the commission confirming that the shop is no longer turning customers away because of their sexual orientation. 

The decision affirms a December ruling from the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which found that Phillips illegally discriminated against Craig and Mullins when Phillips refused to accept an order for a wedding cake the couple placed in July 2012. Although same-sex marriage is prohibited by a 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment in Colorado, the couple had married in Massachusetts earlier in 2012, and hoped to celebrate with hometown friends and family in Colorado that summer.

At the time, Phillips told Denver's KDVR that his religious beliefs prevented him from serving the couple, and admitted to refusing service to other same-sex couples. But in December, administrative law judge Robert N. Spencer rejected that reasoning, noting that Phillips's shop had previously agreed to make a cake for the wedding of two dogs, rendering his supposed religiously based opposition moot. 

Friday's ruling from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission affirmed that Phillips violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations — including businesses open to the public like Masterpiece Cakeshop — on the basis of race, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity, among other characteristics. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the same-sex couple in this case and opposed the bakery's attempts to appeal the decision, lauded Friday's announcement. "Religious freedom is undoubtedly an important American value, but so is the right to be treated equally under the law free from discrimination," Amanda C. Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project said in a statement. "Everyone is free to believe what they want, but businesses like Masterpiece Cakeshop cannot treat some customers differently than others based on who they are as people."

In an email interview with The Advocate, Goad explained that this case — one of several high-profile incidents regarding bakeries and wedding providers refusing service to same-sex couples in the past year — is, in part, a reaction to the sweeping gains made in the fight for marriage equality nationwide. And with 21 states and numerous municipalities with similarly inclusive nondiscrimination laws on the books — and 17 states with nondiscrimination ordinances that include gender identity — the attempts to defend discrimination under the guise of religious liberty are unlikely to fade anytime soon. 

"There has obviously been huge progress on the issue of marriage equality for same-sex couples around the nation in the past few years, and while the majority of the public supports marriage equality for everyone, of course some people feel conflicted or unhappy about it," Goad says. "And some of the advocacy groups who oppose marriage equality seem to have conceded defeat on that issue and moved on toward a 'Plan B' of carving out broad religious exemptions from everything related to marriage equality for same-sex couples. But the vast majority of business owners understand that by choosing to open the doors of their business to the public, they are committing to serve the public."

Regarding similar legislative efforts to carve out religious exemptions to marriage equality and LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws — like that recently passed in Mississippi, and those defeated in Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota, and a half dozen other states — Goad does see some connection to the increase in business owners claiming their religious liberty grants them the right to disregard longstanding state law. 

"I don’t want to speculate about anybody else’s strategy, but there certainly are similarities between efforts like Masterpiece Cakeshop’s, to claim religious freedom as an excuse for one instance of treating LGBT people unfairly, and legislative efforts (like the bills defeated last session in Arizona, Idaho, Georgia, and elsewhere) to weaken civil rights protections by allowing broad use of religion as an excuse to discriminate," says Goad. "It would be great to pass similar protections in the remaining states [beyond the 21 mentioned above] and at the federal level to ensure that no LGBT Americans can be turned away from participating in public life just because of who they are or whom they love."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated the initial date of the couple's order with Masterpiece Cakeshop, and misidentified an earlier ruling, which came from an administrative law judge in the Colorado Civil Rights Division. Text has been updated to reflect accurate information. 

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