Then again, the campaign to destroy Phillips’s business was never merely about punishing a single man for refusing to submit to prevailing leftist orthodoxy. It was also a warning to all would-be apostates that thought crimes could lead to fiscal ruin, public denunciation, and endless harassment. In that sense, the prosecution has probably already paid off.
Courts won’t put to rest the cultural debate over social issues. But it’s worth noting that it wasn’t howling protesters but the state-empowered Colorado Civil Rights Commission that attempted to destroy Phillips’s business when he refused to design a specialty cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig’s gay wedding ceremony in 2012—before gay marriage was even legalized in Colorado or recognized by federal courts.
Even today, after getting it wrong for so long, mainstream news outlets like to report that Phillips refused “to bake a wedding cake” or denied a gay couple “service.” Phillips, however, didn’t query his customers about their sexual preferences or their preferred pronouns, nor did he bar anyone from purchasing any products made in his shop, a place of public accommodation. No, Colorado had attempted to compel a citizen to say something he didn’t believe.
After years of fiscal and personal struggles, Phillips finally prevailed, but only because of a narrow Supreme Court decision that found commissioners hadn’t displayed religious neutrality and exhibited “a clear and impermissible hostility toward [his] sincere religious beliefs” when pursuing Phillips. That is a nice way of saying commissioners had compared orthodox Christians to Nazis and segregationists—because nothing says “inclusion” like comparing a genteel baker in Lakewood to murderous SS officer.
In any event, the Colorado commissioners went after Phillips only one day after SCOTUS ruled in his favor. And on June 26, 2017, the day the Supreme Court agreed to hear Phillips’s case, the lawyer and transgender activist Autumn Scardina called Masterpiece Cakeshop, one of dozens of bakeries in the Denver area—there is one approximately a quarter of a mile from Masterpiece Cakeshop—and asked Phillips to design a custom cake with a blue exterior and a pink interior to symbolize a transition from male to female, or, as her lawyer now claims, her “birthday cake.”
Phillips turned Scardina down, because, well, he turns down every request for specialized cakes that aggravate his long-held religious views, and not only from customers who are gay or transgendered.
“I was stunned,” Scardina claimed in her complaint to the Civil Rights Commission. Scardina, of course, wasn’t stunned, at all. The activist didn’t happen to fortuitously contact the most famous Christian baker in the country to make a “transition” cake on the very day SCOTUS took on his case. Scardina was part of a mob that had been harassing Phillips.
Previously, Scardina—going by “Autumn Marie” and other monikers—was the one who allegedly asked for “an image of Satan smoking marijuana.” In another request from “the Church of Satan”— also, according to a complaint, likely Scardina—Phillips was asked to make “a three-tiered white cake” with a “large figure of Satan, licking a nine inch black Dildo.” How creative, right? “I would like the dildo to be an actual working model that can be turned on before we unveil the cake,” went the request.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ended up dropping the case against Phillips, not because the attack was a transparent way to punish Phillips for his beliefs, but because the Alliance Defending Freedom sued Colorado in federal court and they would surely have lost.
Next time, though, commissioners in Colorado and elsewhere will, no doubt, be more careful about their public statements. What stops them from a destroying a business then? Very little, apparently.
The Supreme Court has another chance, after punting on the central issue in the Masterpiece decision, to re-affirm that religious Americans can’t be compelled to abandon their free expression and religious liberty simply because they’ve decided to enter the marketplace.
A case now in front of the court revolves around another ham-fisted authoritarian, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who attempted to fine a small establishment called Sweet Cakes by Melissa into submission when the owners refused to design a wedding cake for the same-sex couple in 2013. The state demanded that Aaron and Melissa Klein pay $135,000 in “emotional damages” to a wounded lesbian couple—just in case anyone still believes this isn’t about hurt feelings.
We won’t know what court has decided until June 27, at the earliest. But SCOTUS could effectively strip these extra-constitutional “civil rights” commissions, which have become little more than star chambers that punish citizens for wrongthink, of much of their power.
It might even undermine frivolous lawsuits. In Colorado, for example, Scardina filed yet another suit against Phillips, this time in Denver District Court. “The dignity of all citizens in our state needs to be honored. Masterpiece Cakeshop said before the Supreme Court they would serve any baked good to members of the LGBTQ community. It was just the religious significance of it being a wedding cake,” her lawyer said.
Although it’s true that bullies like Scardina don’t have much dignity, it has nothing to do with their gender identity. Nor is it the bailiwick of government to find it for them. There are numerous people in this country who believe transgendered Americans suffer from mental illness, but not one can compel Scardina to take on those cases. In the same way, Scardina shouldn’t be able to coerce a business owner into participating in her transition celebration.
But compelling the right kind of speech no longer seems a bothersome prospect to most progressives. Any neutral principles that are inherent in the First Amendment have long been discarded for more pressing matters of social justice.
So, while courts might not be able to stop this corrosion of liberalism, they can stop the state-sponsored attacks on individuals. At least for now.