The Colorado Court of Appeals recently ruled against Masterpiece Cakeshop and its owner Jack Phillips, affirming an administrative ruling that Phillips discriminated against homosexuals as a protected class, and directing him to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding—in spite of his religious objections to being forced to help celebrate a same-sex marriage. Phillips may now appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court, but his opportunities for vindicating his religious freedom in the courts are running out.
While David French does a good job of breaking down the ruling and summarizing its problems at National Review, I want to focus on one very problematic portion of the decision, buried at the end of Footnote 8: the court’s attempt to distinguish and reject a Kentucky judge’s decision earlier this year vindicating the right of a printing business, Hands on Originals, and its owner Blaine Adamson, to not be forced to print t-shirts for a gay pride parade. The Colorado Court of Appeals acknowledged the similarity of the Hands on Originals case, but then attempted to (unsatisfactorily) distinguish the two:
“[In Hands on Originals], evidence established that the T-shirt printer treated homosexual and heterosexual groups alike. . . . Specifically, in the previous three years, the printer had declined several orders for T shirts promoting premarital romantic and sexual relationships between heterosexual individuals, including those portraying strip clubs and sexually explicit videos. . . .
Although [Hands on Originals], like Masterpiece, based its refusal on its opposition to a particular conduct—premarital sexual relationships—such conduct is not “exclusively or predominantly” engaged in by a particular class of people protected by a public accommodations statute. . . .
Opposition to premarital romantic and sexual relationships, unlike opposition to same-sex marriage, is not tantamount to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
At best, this is sloppy analysis. At worst, it’s an intentional slight-of-hand to get rid of an unhelpful case. Unfortunately, I suspect it’s the latter.
What the court misses in its characterization above is that Adamson was not primarily acting out of opposition to any one activity or group, but was simply seeking to live out his faith—which might be manifested from time to time in specific situations as being in opposition to certain behaviors that he finds morally objectionable. Adamson’s refusal to print the t-shirts was not primarily “based . . . on [his] opposition to a particular conduct—premarital sexual relationships,” but was based on the exercise of his one cohesive set of religious beliefs—which apply to many different types of sexual conduct.
The court fails to mention that Hands on Originals was charged with sexual orientation discrimination for not wanting to make t-shirts for a gay pride parade. Adamson was able to point to other instances where he lived out his beliefs at work—beliefs, just like those of Phillips, which are opposed to any sexual activity outside of God’s design, which includes opposition to any sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman.
Phillips sought to live out the same beliefs. The fact that he hasn’t had the “opportunity” to decline business from customers seeking to celebrate other types of sexual activity outside God’s design doesn’t convert his actions into discrimination against homosexuals as a class of people. The court didn’t seem to comprehend this point in erroneously distinguishing the Hands on Originals case. Indeed, Phillips was happy to serve customers regardless of sexual orientation; he just didn’t want to be implicated in their same-sex marriage.
Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop was living out the same beliefs as Blaine Adamson of Hands on Originals. The Colorado Court of Appeals should have likewise recognized and protected his freedom of belief. We must hope that other courts will have the courage to do so.