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Justices weigh religion, discrimination and dignity in Colorado wedding cake case

One of the Supreme Court's biggest cases this term probes whether the religious beliefs of a Colorado baker override the rights of a couple who were refused a wedding cake because they are gay. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins John Yang to go over the court arguments and how the justices responded.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case that embodies the conflict between religious conscience and equality under the Constitution.

    John Yang begins with the backstory.

  • John Yang:

    Colorado baker Jack Phillips has been drawing since he was a kid. He says he was inspired to become a cake decorator the first time he saw one in action.

  • Jack Phillips:

    I thought, oh, this is really cool. You can do art and bake at the same time.

  • John Yang:

    So instead of paper and pencil, you have moved to…

  • Jack Phillips:

    Yes. Now I have a different canvas, and it's a cake.

  • John Yang:

    When Charlie Craig and David Mullins got married five years ago, they wanted one of Phillips' cakes.

  • Charlie Craig:

    We looked at their Web site, and we were like, oh, look these cakes look good. These cakes look like a cake we would want to have.

  • John Yang:

    Though none of them knew it, that simple decision set in motion a legal battle over LGBTQ rights and freedom of speech.

  • David Mullins:

    As soon as we sat down with the owner, he asked who the cake was for. And we told him it was for us.

  • Jack Phillips:

    So, I'm thinking, how can I politely tell these guys that that's an event I can't participate in?

    I will make a birthday cake, cookies, brownies. I will sell you anything in the shop. It's just an event that I can't create a cake for.

  • David Mullins:

    What followed was just a horrible pregnant pause.

  • John Yang:

    They both got up. One of them flipped me off, swore at me, went out that door. The other one went out that door.

  • David Mullins:

    The experience was mortifying. And to have Charlie's mother there with us really, it made it all the much harder.

  • Charlie Craig:

    She was just kind of in horror. And, you know, when we left the bakery, we cried together. You know, it was really emotional. It was really sad.

  • John Yang:

    Phillips says designing their wedding cake would have violated his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. His religious faith is so important, he says he put it in his store's name.

  • Jack Phillips:

    The first part of Masterpiece is master. In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, he says no man can serve two masters. I wanted to have that as a focus of my life as a Christian that I would be serving him in everything I do.

  • John Yang:

    Mullins and Craig say Phillips discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation. They complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

  • Charlie Craig:

    We felt like we were treated lesser. And we — really, it took us a while to kind of let what happened to us sink in internally, because it was such a shock.

  • David Mullins:

    Those emotions, the embarrassment, the feelings of being degraded in public, you know, those inspired us to pursue this.

  • John Yang:

    A pursuit that has now reached the highest court in the land.

    Here's the question the Supreme Court is going to have to decide- When Jack Phillips designs and sells custom cakes like these, is it a service or is it artistic expression?

  • Jack Phillips:

    These two gentlemen are suing me for trying to use my art, use my craft to make a living. I never turn anybody away, just events that I turn away.

  • Charlie Craig:

    I don't feel like we asked him for a piece of art or we asked him to say anything. We asked him for a cake.

  • David Mullins:

    He turned us away because of who we are and because of who we love.

  • John Yang:

    The state civil rights commission said if Phillips designed custom wedding cakes for opposite-sex couples, he had to do it for same-sex couples, too. So he stopped making wedding cakes altogether, cutting his business by 40 percent.

  • Jack Phillips:

    It's in the Constitution that we're guaranteed the right to freely exercise our religion. And for them to say you can only exercise it this far is surprising.

    That's just like such an extreme overreach to me. All I'm trying to do is use my art, use my craft to create cakes to help people celebrate special occasions in their life.

  • David Mullins:

    Are you hungry?

  • John Yang:

    Craig and Mullins are no less passionate about their position.

  • Charlie Craig:

    When we go into a business, in the back of our mind, are we able to be served equally here? Can we talk about our relationship openly? Can we hold hands in public? All of these insecurities are — you know, have manifested through this experience.

  • John Yang:

    Leading all three to an unexpected date in Washington.

    Did you ever think that you would be going before the Supreme Court?

  • Jack Phillips:

    Before all this happened, I didn't know how the court worked. So, it was a fantastic thing to think about the importance of this court, this issue, and to be part of it is pretty amazing.

  • Charlie Craig:

    We never asked to be sitting here, honestly. But, you know, we're grateful that we have the opportunity to have this platform.

  • David Mullins:

    You read about the Supreme Court when you were in school. It's not a place you go in and it's certainly not a place you would go to watch your case be argued.

  • John Yang:

    Now nine justices will have their say in this tale of three men, a cake and their conflicting rights. Whatever they decide, the ruling could have widespread implications for generations to come.

    All three of the men we just met in that report were inside the courtroom today.

    And so was Marcia Coyle, the chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal.

    Marcia, thanks for being with us now.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Glad to be here.

  • John Yang:

    As we heard in the report, Jack Phillips, the baker, based his argument on the First Amendment, not just the free exercise of religion, but also freedom of speech, that he talked about his cakes as artistic expression.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That's right, John.

    In fact, his claim is that applying Colorado's anti-discrimination law to him violates his free speech rights, one, because it compels him through his cakes to deliver a message that is approving of same-sex marriages, and it also violates his religion, free exercise of religion. His religion doesn't support same-sex marriages.

  • John Yang:

    And how did the justices take that argument?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, first of all, I think the justices took very seriously the arguments on both sides.

    And there was a concern expressed by several, and perhaps best expressed by Justice Breyer, who said, where do we draw the line here? How do we draw it so that we don't undermine all of our anti-discrimination laws?

    And the reason he raised that, we saw through a whole rash of hypotheticals posed by the justices. For example, if this baker because of religion can refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple, what about the florist who creates the floral arrangement for the wedding? What about the makeup artist also feels that he or she is an artist, like Jack Phillips is an artist in his cakes?

    What about the tailor who makes the custom suit for the groom, and on and on? Justice Ginsburg, at one point, she said, I don't think you can draw the line. She said that to the Trump administration's lawyer, who is supporting the baker, the solicitor general of the United States.

    He tried to say that this case can be decided narrowly. It affects a small group of people. But, as the hypotheticals showed, there were a number of justices who didn't believe it could be decided narrowly.

  • John Yang:

    Narrowly meaning just saying — talking just about bakers in this case.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Bakers, right, or artists, real artists.

  • John Yang:

    Although they would argue — Jack Phillips would argue he is a real artist.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That's right, exactly.

  • John Yang:

    But Justice Kennedy, for a lot of reasons, is sort of looked at as a key figure in this case. Why?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Justice Kennedy, for this case in particular, it hits two things very close to home for him.

    One, he is probably the strongest defender of First Amendment speech rights on the bench right now. And he's also a very strong defender of the dignity of the individual, which was at the center of the opinions that he has written supporting gay rights, particularly the most recent same-sex marriage decision.

    So, at one point during the arguments, he felt that the baker's lawyer and the Trump administration's lawyer made a comment. He asked the Trump administration's lawyer, could the baker hang a sign out on his window saying, no wedding cakes for gay couples?

    And the Trump administration's lawyer said, "No custom-made wedding cakes."

    And Justice Kennedy said, that's an affront to the dignity of gays and lesbians.

    So, that's very much on his mind. But also during the argument, he felt that the Colorado Commission on Civil Rights, which ruled against Jack Phillips here, didn't show much tolerance or respect for the baker's religious beliefs, and that also is very important to him.

    So, he's really at the center now of speech and dignity in this case, with an overlay of religion. And I think, as is so often the case, when the justices are closely divided, he may well be the key to the outcome.

  • John Yang:

    Maybe the key — the swing vote, but he gave no hints today?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    He didn't, and he often doesn't. And the court did seem ideologically divided again, but they are struggling with where that line should be drawn.

  • John Yang:

    And this may not be the only big gay rights case before the court this term?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    It's very possible they will take another case that is pending, their decision to take it or not, and that case is out of Georgia.

    And it asks a very important question. It asks whether Title VII, which is our country's major job anti-discrimination law, whether it protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

    A lot of courts are watching that. There is a division right now in the lower courts. So the court, the justices may well have to jump into that one.

  • John Yang:

    Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure, John.

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