Jack Phillips is an American. His nation’s supreme law claims to protect his inalienable rights to free speech and to freely practice his faith. Yet for ten years, these same rights have been effectively suspended by a state legislature and multiple courts, despite a 2018 win in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Phillips, who lives in the Denver, Colorado suburb of Lakewood, was first prosecuted for faithful Christianity in 2012. He was hauled into Colorado’s non-judicial Civil Rights Commission, then later into real courts, for offering to sell a gay couple anything in his bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop, except a custom cake celebrating homosexual acts. He’s still in court now.
His ten-year battle, Phillips said in a Jan. 14 phone interview, “had profound effects on me and my faith. My faith is much stronger now, my family is much closer. First coming out, there were death threats and things, hateful phone calls and emails. There was a time when my wife was afraid to come to the shop because you didn’t know what you would expect.”
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court found Phillips was essentially the victim of government entities prejudiced against Christians and other traditional religions, noting the personal hostility expressed against him by commission members.
“Colorado officials compared Jack’s plea for religious freedom to some of the worst things in American history, such as the Holocaust and slavery,” noted Phillips’s current lawyer, Jacob Warner, in a phone interview. Warner works for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has defended Phillips pro bono in court. “The Supreme Court didn’t need to reach the free speech issue because of that animosity and that left the door open for other litigation.”
Immediately after the Supreme Court decision in Phillips’s first case, LGBT activists hauled Phillips back into court, not once but twice more, again with clear personal animus. In the current case, a lawyer named Autumn Scardina claims the right to force Phillips to draw a picture of Satan smoking marijuana and to bake a cake celebrating transgender mutilation. Not being able to force others into expressing things they don’t believe, Scardina claims, constitutes discrimination against LGBT people.
According to court documents, Scardina has sought for many years to harm Phillips due to his religious beliefs and public stand on their behalf. During trial, for example, Scardina said the goal of this suit was to “correct” the “errors of [Phillips’s] thinking.”
Also during the current case, “Scardina promised Phillips that, were this suit dismissed, Scardina would call Phillips the next day, to request another cake and start another lawsuit,” notes Phillips’s most recent court filing (emphasis original). Court document say Scardina has also harassed Phillips by email, calling him a “bigot” and “hypocrite.”
It’s clear Scardina is using the Colorado court system to continue harassing Phillips for his religious views. Rather than reject this abuse of the legal system against an American’s constitutionally guaranteed rights to freely speak and worship, in March 2021 a Colorado court ruled in Scardina’s favor. Phillips’s case is now in the Colorado Court of Appeals.
“The State’s past prosecutions generated death threats and vandalism and cost Phillips seven years of his life, a significant part of his business, and most of his employees—harms that endure even though he eventually won his legal fights,” notes the defendants’ latest legal briefing in the case. “He’s now been in courts defending his freedom nearly a decade. This crusade against Phillips should stop.”
Phillips’ friends and supporters, who live all over the United States and world, are appalled that our legal system is denying an American his constitutional rights and subjecting him to a decade of prejudiced harassment. They also notice the effects on the cake artist’s everyday life of political activists persecuting him for his Christian beliefs about sex.
Adrian Sherrill, a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Denver, visits Phillips’s shop regularly. Grateful for Phillips’s stand, Sherrill has fixed door handles on Jack’s shop and helped his family move house.
It was during a move that Sherrill particularly noticed Phillips’s van. The 22-year-old trusty delivery vehicle for hundreds of beautiful, custom-made baked goods has approximately 200,000 miles on it. The state-enabled persecution of Phillips and his life’s work has reduced his income, and car prices are now much higher due to high inflation.
So Sherrill and other pastor friends decided to start an online fundraising campaign to get Phillips a new van. They feel it’s the least they can do to support Phillips for standing for all who believe men and women are different, and that no American should be punished for his religious views or forced to labor for someone against his conscience. (Disclosure: This author donated to the campaign.) Sherrill noted that while ADF has handled Phillips’s high-profile legal case at no charge to him, Phillips has still borne significant costs due to his stand, such as lost business and frequent harassment at his shop and elsewhere.
While Jack’s friends and admirers notice the effects of American injustice on Phillips’s life’s work and his family, Phillips responded to questions about his persecution with faith. His ten years and counting legal battle, Phillips said in the interview, “surely has changed the type of business that we do because it’s just a different business now. It’s also the business that God has planned for me from before time. He knew where we would be and what we would be doing. To be doing this is pretty good. I could be wasting my time doing something else, but I don’t think this is a waste of time, I think this is so important. We’re allowed to help people understand that every American should be free to live and work according to their faith.”
“I’ve had people tell me our story has inspired them to make a stand and do the right thing, they’ve thought about, ‘What would the baker do.’ It’s empowered them to do what’s right,” he continued.
Asked if he’s thought about leaving Colorado for a state with a less abusive government, Phillips replied, “No. God put us here, in Lakewood, a suburb of Denver. I’ve been here all my life. This is my home, I grew up two miles from here, so there is no reason for me to go anywhere else. God will provide all we need for this battle here.”
In any case, “There is no place that you could go or place that you should go, because every American should be free to live according to their conscience,” he continued. “That is protected by the First Amendment.”
Or it would be, if U.S. courts enforced the First Amendment. Despite the very visible suggestion that American justice works slowly, if at all, in Phillips’s case, Warner said things are truly looking better for First Amendment enforcement in America.
“ADF has represented creative professionals all over the country and in the past few years we have started to see courts get this right more often than not,” he noted.
Many Americans’ faith in their legal system rests on whether the courts uphold the laws or abuse them. U.S. courts have damaged Americans’ faith by refusing, for example, to rule more broadly on Phillips’s case when the Supreme Court had the chance in 2018, and by writing new law from the bench, as the Supreme Court did in its 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County decision that added gender identity to a law Congress passed when the concept of gender identity didn’t exist.
Phillips’s faith, however, is not in courts or politicians or even in how much money he makes with his extraordinary artistic skills. Phillips’s faith is in the one true God, whose promises never fail, unlike even the promises in the U.S. Constitution that judges often fail to make good.