Finding a place in the national debate

Both sides of Masterpiece case reflect on past five years, what’s next

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On a table in south Lakewood’s Masterpiece Cakeshop there’s a guest book filled with signatures supporting and praising owner and baker Jack Phillips for standing up for his religious convictions.

“The response has been really positive from the community here,” Phillips, who has run Masterpiece since 1993, said on June 8. “I’m really pleased with the ruling that protected my religious freedom. When I opened the bakery, wedding cakes were one of the main things I wanted to do. I look forward to getting back to it.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court announced its ruling in Phillips’ favor on June 4 by a 7-2 vote, the first the thing he did is call his wife. The rest of the week has been a swirl of travel and interviews on shows like “Today” and “Fox and Friends.”

But on the morning of June 8, anyone stopping by the shop who hasn’t been keeping up on the debate would think it was just another quiet morning at a bakery. Customers came in asking for cupcakes, trying a free sample of a brownie and filling up on free coffee.

For the couple who was denied the cake, the ruling was frustrating, but not the end of their efforts to ensure equality for the LGBTQ community.

A long road

The debate went back to July 2012, when he declined to make a custom wedding cake for same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins, citing his religious beliefs. He describes himself as a follower of Jesus Christ and believer in a Biblical-based worldview.

Over the years, he says he also declined to make custom cakes celebrating divorce, Halloween, and anything that disparages people.

“I serve everybody who comes into my shop, and offered these two gentlemen brownies, birthday cakes, anything they wanted,” he said. “For me, it’s about the message the cake promotes. In this case, the message the cake promotes goes against the core teachings of my faith.”

After Phillips refused to bake the wedding cake, the couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission stating that Phillips violated the state’s public accommodations law that specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The commission ruled against Phillips in May 2014 and the appeals court upheld the decision in May 2015.

In September, the Department of Justice filed a brief on behalf of Phillips, agreeing with his argument that his cakes are a form of artistic expression and he can’t be forced to make something that would be contrary to his beliefs.

The favorable ruling for Phillips came down to his treatment by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion did not consider Phillips’ case free of religious bias.

“All of this is going to affect the rest of his life,” said Denver resident John Chopski, who made a point to come to Masterpiece because he wanted to support Phillips. “I feel for him, because he’s been penalized just for doing what is right.”

As Masterpiece’s guest book shows, Phillips has become a symbol for many who fear their religious freedoms are being ignored or actively taken away. That’s not a role he wanted, but he said all the trials and loss of revenue — he had to shrink his staff from 10 people to four — was worth it.

“This was the right fight, and it got the right outcome,” he said.

But legal experts and LGBTQ advocates both describe the decision as narrow in its focus. By zeroing in on the actions of Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission, the court sidestepped the larger issues of free speech and religious freedom inherent in the debate.

“The decision means the fight will continue,” Mullins said. “I’ve always believed in an America where you are not turned away from a business because of who you are. No one should have to face the shame and embarrassment by being told we do not serve your kind here.”

The couple denied

This issue has hung over the heads of Denver residents Mullins and Craig for their almost six-year marriage, but they’ve also found themselves at the center of a wave of support from equality advocates and organizations.

Following the ruling’s announcement, they joined others at a rally at the state Capitol, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, who represents Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, which includes Denver and Englewood, among other areas.

The pair are scheduled to be the grand marshals at the Coors Light PrideFest Parade on June 17.

“While we’re disappointed in the ruling, we feel like the state we call home has had our back every step of the way,” Mullins said.

The pair and their supporters also take hope from the fact that the justices didn’t comment on Colorado’s anti-discrimination law, which forbids businesses from discriminating against customers based on sexual orientation.

“We hope that people can understand this is not a wide-ranging ruling — this doesn’t mean that our anti-discrimination act is invalidated in any way,” Mullins said. “We will continue fighting until no one has to experience what we did.”

Mullins, an office manager, and Craig, an interior designer, had planned to get married in Provincetown, Massachusetts, since gay marriage wasn’t legal in Colorado at the time. The cake they hoped to buy was for a reception held back in their home state.

Members of the LGBTQ community and friends who are concerned about what the ruling could lead to are working to help each other and bring people together.

“I have friends in the LGBT community, and it is important to support everyone whose rights are threatened,” said Jeanette Vizgoerta, a Denver resident at the rally. “This presidential administration has created so much hate and division that we need to create unity.”

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