Why some wedding businesses say ‘I don’t’ to gay couples

GWEN IFILL: Three dozen states have moved to legalize same-sex marriage, but in some quarters, a backlash is under way. One example is Colorado, where one bakery owner says the state shouldn't force him to cater gay weddings.

Hari Sreenivasan takes a look at the ongoing legal battle between religious expression and equal rights.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Colorado baker Jack Phillips estimates he's made 5,000 wedding cakes since he opened his shop, Masterpiece Cakes, 20 years ago.

JACK PHILLIPS, Owner, Masterpiece Cakeshop: I just like everything about the baking business. With a wedding, I get to know the bride, I get to know the groom, if I can, you know, as much of the personalities and things that I can.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And while his portfolio of wedding cakes is vast, there's one cake the baker refuses to bake. Phillips will not make a cake for a same-sex marriage.

JACK PHILLIPS: It's a cake that I just don't do because of my Christian faith.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A deeply religious man, Jack Phillips says he will bake birthday cakes, cupcakes, and a variety of other sweets for same-sex couples, not just a wedding cake.

JACK PHILLIPS: I actually feel like I'm taking part in the wedding. Part of me goes to the reception. And in this case, that part of me doesn't want to be represented in a ceremony that I believe is unbiblical.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But that line of reasoning doesn't work for Colorado's Civil Rights Division. The state says Phillips must comply with a Colorado statute requiring business owners to offer the same services to all customers regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

And an administrative judge ordered Phillips to cease and desist his wedding cake policy. As the number of states allowing same-sex marriages increases, so, too, have the number of business owners refusing to provide wedding services, cases like a florist in Washington State, a bed and breakfast in Hawaii, a printer in Kentucky, and a photographer in New Mexico.

NICOLE MARTIN, Lawyer, Alliance Defending Freedom: We're on a collision course with homosexual rights vs. rights of conscience.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lawyer Nicole Martin is representing Jack Phillips in a case now before the Colorado Court of Appeals. It began when Phillips refused to make a wedding cake in 2013.

NICOLE MARTIN: Jack declined because of his religious beliefs about marriage, not because of who the complainants are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The complainants are Colorado couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

CHARLIE CRAIG: My mom and your dad came and gave me a giant hug.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After dating for four years, Craig and Mullins decided to make it official by getting married in 2012. At the time, same-sex marriage was illegal in Colorado, so the couple traveled to Massachusetts, where they married surrounded by friends and family who made the trip with them.

DAVID MULLINS: It celebrated us and the people who had come together for us. And I feel like those are the fundamental things that everyone wants in their wedding.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The couple then planned their reception in Colorado and went to Masterpiece Cakeshop to look at cakes.

DAVID MULLINS: We sat down with the owner, Jack Phillips, opened the book of ideas and almost instantly he asked us if the cake was for us. We said it was. And he told us that he wouldn't make a cake, a wedding cake for a gay couple. And what followed was an incredibly awkward pregnant pause before we got up and left.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jack Phillips describes the meeting in much the same way.

JACK PHILLIPS: I said, I'm sorry, guys, I don't do cakes for a same-sex wedding, at which point they both stormed out. I have two doors, one out, each door.

DAVID MULLINS: We were mortified and embarrassed. And the fact that Charlie's mother was there, like, you don't want your mother to have to see that.

CHARLIE CRAIG: It hurt me. It made me feel like I wasn't worthy.

DAVID MULLINS: Being told and treated unequally, it makes you feel like a second-class citizen. It makes you feel like you matter less than the person standing next to you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Craig and Mullins filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division.

Amanda Goad, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, represents Craig and Mullins. Goad says Jack Phillips' faith doesn't allow him to refuse services to thank some customers.

AMANDA GOAD: It's always been the case in America that you have the right to believe whatever you would like to believe and to practice that faith. That doesn't go so far as to mean that you can practice your faith in ways that exclude other people from public life and cause harm to other people.

JACK PHILLIPS: I don't see not baking a cake as causing anybody harm. There's a bakery across the street that would make it for them.

AMANDA GOAD: It's not just about the cake. What we're talking about here is access to public life. And the same law that says a bakery as a retail business can't discriminate also applies to all sorts of other establishments open to the public, everything from banks to hospitals to parks to hotels and motels.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nicole Martin agrees the debate is about something bigger. She says it's a First Amendment issue.

NICOLE MARTIN: This case is about the government forcing Jack to express a message that is deeply at odds with his convictions.

JACK PHILLIPS: I feel like I'm discriminated against. The U.S. Constitution, First Amendment clearly says that Congress shall pass no law that says that — for an establishment of religion or restricting the free exercise of it.

AMANDA GOAD: Filling an order for a customer is just that, filling an order for a customer. There are all sorts of ways that he could communicate if he doesn't personally agree with the messages involved in completing a particular order.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For their part, Craig and Mullins say the experience has led them to speak out in a way they wouldn't have before.

DAVID MULLINS: We strongly support the right for people to believe whatever they believe in their hearts, but a bakery is not a church. It is a place of business open to the public. And if you are in a business open to the public, that is governed by civil laws, and not religious laws.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jack Phillips has stopped taking all wedding cake orders until the Colorado Court of Appeals weighs in on his case. meanwhile, cases like Phillips have prompted controversial legislation in several states to let businesses refuse services based on an owner's religious beliefs.

I'm Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour.