Jack Phillips is an artist. He has always loved drawing, sculpting and painting. Designing custom wedding cakes allowed him to do all three in a setting that inspired him as a person of faith. And Jack excelled at his work. The local newspaper called his shop “an art gallery of cakes,” and his designs received acclaim from the well-known wedding website The Knot.
But an order from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission has forced Jack to stop creating the wedding art he loves. A victory for the state threatens great harm to the freedom of all who create expression for a living. That is why Jack’s case, which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Tuesday is so important for all of us.
Jack wants to live out his faith by creating art that honors God. He chose the name of his shop, Masterpiece Cakeshop, to reflect not only that he creates artistic cakes, but that he lives all of his life, including his professional life, for his ultimate Master.
The religious beliefs that inspire his life denounce discrimination. God calls him to love and serve all, which is exactly what he does. But he cannot convey all messages or celebrate all events, particularly those that promote what his faith prohibits.
So when a same-sex couple asked Jack to design a cake celebrating their wedding, he politely declined because his faith teaches that marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman. Jack apologized and offered to sell the couple any other item in his shop or to make other custom cakes for them. But they picketed him and filed discrimination charges anyway.
Jack’s custom wedding cakes are works of art that serve as temporary monuments announcing the union as a marriage. If Jack were to create such a centerpiece for a same-sex marriage, his art would announce something that he doesn’t believe to be true, and that contradicts a central tenet of his faith.
The state says that the price Jack must pay to follow his conscience — to stay true to his religious identity — is to stop creating wedding cakes altogether, abandoning his life’s work. That has cost him 40 percent of his income and left him struggling to keep his small family business afloat.
In addition, a tremendous cost accompanies the state’s decision to label as bigoted Jack and his religious beliefs. It has galvanized a barrage of death threats and hate mail, prompting him to take additional measures to protect himself and his family.
As bad as this is, this case, like most the Supreme Court decides, is about more than Jack. In the state’s quest to punish him, it has insisted that governments have the power to compel all sorts of creative professionals — fine-art painters, authors, publicists, graphic designers, poets and filmmakers — to express messages they consider objectionable.
For example, the government could force a Jewish singer to sing at a Catholic service, a Democratic graphic designer to create websites for Republican politicians, and a lesbian cake artist to design a cake celebrating a church event opposing same-sex marriage.
The cost of living by conscience for these professionals is harsh, extending beyond even loss of career. Barronelle Stutzman — a 72-year old grandmother and floral artist — is currently at risk of losing her home, her retirement and her life savings simply because she, like Jack, declined to create custom floral designs to celebrate the same-sex wedding of a nine-year customer and friend. Other artists — a hand-painter and calligrapher in Arizona and filmmakers in Minnesota — could face potential jail time for making similar decisions.
The state says that it must compel these creative professionals or else civil rights laws will be eviscerated. Not true. There’s a difference between objecting to a message conveyed through speech and refusing to serve a person solely because of who they are. When Jack declines a request for a custom cake, it is never because of who the client is, but only because of the message that the cake conveys.
The First Amendment protects for all of us the freedom to decline to create art that conveys messages we consider unacceptable. If we want this freedom for ourselves, we must extend it to people who have different views than us.
Our Constitution forges a path for people with divergent views to live together, tolerate each other, and live out the very identity that governs their lives. That’s the Constitution we’ll be asking the justices to apply when they consider Jack’s case — the same Constitution that guarantees freedom and dignity for us all, no matter our views about marriage.
• Kristen Waggoner is senior vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom’s U.S. legal division and will argue on behalf of Jack Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop before the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 5.