The U.S. Supreme Court stepped into a clash that pits gay rights against religious freedoms, agreeing to hear arguments from a baker who says he shouldn’t have to make cakes for same-sex weddings.
The justices will review a finding that Jack Phillips and his bakery were violating Colorado’s civil rights laws, which ban sexual-orientation discrimination by businesses that sell to the public.
Religious objections to gay marriage have become a simmering legal issue, and one the Supreme Court until now hasn’t addressed. Lower courts around the country have ruled that wedding vendors such as florists, photographers and building owners must comply with state laws that require equal treatment for same-sex couples.
The court will hear arguments during the nine-month term that starts in October. It will be one of the first major cases taken up by Neil Gorsuch, the newest justice and a longtime Colorado resident.
The court had repeatedly deferred acting on the appeal, which was first scheduled for consideration at a private conference among the justices in January. As is the court’s practice, the justices didn’t reveal which of them provided the four votes necessary to hear the appeal.
Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, argues in his appeal that Colorado violates his speech and religious rights under the U.S. Constitution.
He said the state offers a “stark choice” to businesses like his. “Either use your talents to create expression that conflicts with your religious beliefs about marriage, or suffer punishment under Colorado’s public accommodations law,” Phillips said.
The dispute began in 2012, when Phillips refused to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, who were planning to marry in Massachusetts and then hold a wedding reception in Colorado. The couple filed a civil rights complaint and state officials joined the case against Phillips.
The state’s civil rights commission and then a Colorado appeals court ruled against the bakery. The state court said Phillips wouldn’t be conveying support for same-sex marriage simply by decorating and selling wedding cakes on a non-discriminatory basis.
Craig, Mullins and Colorado officials urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal without a hearing.
“The right to the free exercise of religion does not include a right to disobey neutral and generally applicable laws, including non-discrimination laws,” Craig and Mullins argued in court papers.
Phillips says the Colorado civil rights commission let other bakeries refuse to put anti-homosexuality wording on cakes. He says he has long refused to make cakes with offensive or vulgar messages, and he won’t make items celebrating Halloween or bachelor parties.
Although the Masterpiece website still mentions wedding cakes, Phillips stopped selling them while the case was on appeal, according to his lawyer, Jeremy Tedesco. “Weddings were around 40 percent of his business, so he has taken an enormous hit,” Tedesco said in an email.