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McAlister: In cakeshop case, will force or reason prevail?

Jan. 12, 2018 at 11:44 p.m.


The roller-coaster ride of 2017 AD has finally come to its terminus, but not before the U.S. Supreme Court conducted hearings on what could be one of the more significant cases of our time: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

For those who are unclear about the details of this case, here is a review of the facts. Jack Phillips is the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in the Denver area. For years he has custom-designed cakes for various occasions (birthdays, weddings, etc.), styling himself a "cake artist" because of his unique personalizations of special events and ideas important to his clients.

As a Christian, however, he will not design cakes whose messages would conflict with his understanding of his faith. For example, he will not create divorce cakes, Halloween-themed cakes or cakes that promote atheism or racism.

One day in 2012, two men walked into Phillips' shop and requested that he design a wedding cake for their same-sex nuptials. Because of his Christian conviction that marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman, he explained he could not do that, but would gladly sell them anything in the store that was pre-made or create a cake for another kind of occasion. The couple stormed out, began picketing his store, and soon filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which in 2014 decided Phillips' policy was unlawful. The agency ordered him to create either all kinds of wedding cakes or none at all; to instruct his staff, including family, that he was wrong to have made such distinctions; and to file quarterly reports with the state for two years informing it of every instance in which he declines an order and why.

As a result, Phillips ceased producing wedding cakes altogether, which has cost him about 40 percent of his business. The commission's ruling was upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals in 2015.

It is significant to note that Phillips does not refuse service to any person per se. He has been perfectly willing to serve gay and lesbian customers in any other capacity. But there are some messages which, as a Christian, he cannot communicate in good conscience. It is not only freedom of religion but freedom of speech that comes into play here, and freedom of speech also implies the freedom not to speak a message which conflicts with one's deepest beliefs. Coerced speech makes a mockery of the First Amendment.

It is difficult at this point to tell what the outcome will be when the high court delivers its ruling in late spring, but it is worth noting that Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision and a frequent swing vote on the court, sharply chided Phillips' opponents in the case, saying that "tolerance is a two-way street" and that they had been neither tolerant nor respectful of Phillips.

Too often, it seems that those who employ phrases such as "love is love" and "teach tolerance" more likely mean to say "my way or the highway." At any rate, we shall soon see whether we still possess the remains of a constitutional republic, however battered, or else are left with what has become a meaningless scrap of paper, changed beyond recognition, as so much else has in our post-Christian and post-rational age.

It is not bigoted in the slightest, but altogether healthy to believe, as Jews and Christians, among others, have believed for millenia, that matrimony is concerned with uniting male and female as complementary human beings to help ensure, among other things, the future of the human race. Thus, to force bakers, florists, and other small business owners to trample on the sacred if they wish to remain in business is a travesty of justice. If Jack Phillips loses the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, it will only represent a victory of force over reason.

— Jeff McAlister, a Longview resident, is a regular contributor to the Saturday Forum.

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