Colorado cake designer Jack Phillips made national news again last week because of a book deal to write about his ordeal with the state’s civil rights commission.
Phillips plans to write for Salem Books Publishing, and we hope he illuminates truth, understanding, boundaries and the value of mutual respect. The book could enhance division or diffuse it. Knowing Phillips, we anticipate the latter.
As ABC News reported Thursday, Phillips “became known nationally in 2012 after he cited religious objections in declining the request of two men who wanted a cake celebrating their marriage. The couple filed a complaint with the state’s civil rights commission, which ruled that Phillips should not have refused service.”
At the time, Colorado law did not recognize same-sex marriage and had a constitutional amendment defining it as the union of “one man and one woman.” That was also the definition Phillips believed in, as did then-President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign.
“I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” Obama said. “Now, for me as a Christian — for me — for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”
The same-sex couple had done previous business with Phillips, and he never refused to serve them. What he refused in 2012 was a request for artistic expression. Phillips considers himself a cake artist and is known for elaborate and detailed cakes designed to celebrate the careers, lifestyles and hobbies of prospective newlyweds. Phillips said he would happily sell the couple anything in the store but would not create a custom-order cake.
At issue is not whether same-sex couples should have all the rights of male-female couples. Of course they should. They have the right to walk into any place of public accommodation and buy whatever is on the shelves. They can order any meals on the menu of any restaurant. They can buy anything Amazon sells. Phillips does not dispute this or the value of civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community.
Conversely, no one — black, white, heterosexual, homosexual, Christian, Muslim or Jew — has the right to force another person to create art. If we have this right, the Ku Klux Klan gets to order Phillips to put racist words on a cake — which he would not do. A rancher could demand a Hindu painter to depict the slaughter of a cow. A Christian could force an impassioned atheist to carve a sculpture of Jesus.
Forced expression, as attempted by the civil rights commission, contradicts an individual’s most basic civil rights.
As the U.S. Supreme Court explained when ruling against the commission, the state cannot make moral judgments about an individual’s beliefs “based on the government’s own assessment of offensiveness.”
The court admonished the state for expressing “hostility” toward Phillips’ values and for violating the First Amendment — the first law a “civil rights commission” should defend. The commission tormented Phillips, nearly put him out of business, and called his religious views “despicable.” Commissioners were hateful.
In reporting on Phillips’ book deal, ABC repeated the mainstream media’s boilerplate belief that the court’s ruling missed the main question.
“The court did not rule on the larger issue of whether businesses can invoke religious objections to refuse service to gays and lesbians,” ABC says.
That was never the question in Masterpiece v. Colorado. Any such question would be absurd. Businesses built around public streets and sidewalks cannot refuse “service” to people on the basis of their sexual orientations.
The remaining question is whether the court can uphold the equal rights of all consumers and the First Amendment rights of people who create expressions on demand — whether they design T-shirts, billboards, paintings or cakes. Will the court empower one person to command, by paid contract, the creative expressions of another. That is the harrowing boundary the court dreads to define.
Not all conflicts can be solved by force of law at the courthouse. Some struggles require a massive and mutual movement of tolerance. We hope the Phillips book nudges society in the right direction by promoting collective respect, love, and understanding for people with diverse lifestyles, backgrounds, sexual orientations and heartfelt beliefs — including his.