The incident took only moments.
The journey through the Colorado legal process lasted years.
And then the Supreme Court took its own sweet time. Almost a year passed from the date the court was first asked to review a dispute between a gay couple and a baker who refused to make them a wedding cake and the justices’ announcement that they would do just that.
When the Supreme Court hears the case this fall, it has the potential to be a major decision worth the wait.
Scattered across the country, florists, bakers, photographers and others have claimed that being forced to offer their wedding services to same-sex couples violates their rights of religious liberty and free expression.
Courts have routinely turned down the business owners — as the Colorado Court of Appeals did to cake shop owner Jack C. Phillips in this case — saying that state anti-discrimination laws require businesses that are open to the public to treat all potential customers equally.
Phillips stopped making wedding cakes after the court decision, and the couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, are now celebrating anniversaries instead of nuptials.
When interviewed last summer, as Phillips’s lawyers were asking the Supreme Court to get involved, the three men had already lived the case for years.
“Four years is a long time for something that lasted less than two minutes,” Mullins said. “Every step of the way here in Colorado, the courts and commissions have found that Jack Phillips violated Colorado law. We’d like to end with that still being the case.”
Said Phillips, “As a creative professional and a businessman, I shouldn’t have to give up my freedom — my religion — when I open a bakery.”
There’s no dispute about what happened.
In 2012, when same-sex marriage was still prohibited in Colorado, Craig and Mullins decided to get married in Massachusetts, where it was legal. They would return to Denver for a reception, and those helping with the plans suggested they get a cake from Masterpiece Cakeshop, Phillips’s business in the suburb of Lakewood.
The couple arrived with Craig’s mother and a book of ideas, but Phillips cut short the meeting as soon as he learned the cake was to celebrate the couple’s marriage.
Phillips recalled: “Our conversation was just about 20 seconds long. ‘Sorry guys, I don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.’ ”
Craig recalled: “We were so stunned he would say something like that it actually took a little time to sink in. My mom is kind of a religious person, too, and she said, ‘This doesn’t make sense to me.’ ”
The interaction bothered Mullins enough that he took to Facebook, describing in a public post what happened. “If you feel like the treatment we received is wrong, please contact Masterpiece Cakeshop and let them know you feel their policy is discriminatory,” Mullins said he wrote.
“Pretty soon news organizations are calling and the snowball is screaming down the hill,” Mullins added. “It all happened very fast and we weren’t really prepared for it.”
The couple then learned that Colorado’s public accommodations law specifically prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, and they filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
The commission ruled against Phillips, and the appeals court upheld the decision.
“Masterpiece remains free to continue espousing its religious beliefs, including its opposition to same-sex marriage,” Judge Daniel M. Taubman wrote. “However, if it wishes to operate as a public accommodation and conduct business within the State of Colorado, [the law] prohibits it from picking and choosing customers based on their sexual orientation.”
The ruling was similar to those in other states whose discrimination laws include sexual orientation. The Supreme Court several years ago decided not to review a case from New Mexico that involved a photographer who declined to serve a lesbian couple.
But Phillips’s petition to the high court, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, lingered for months. It was relisted 14 times on the court’s private conference schedule, where the justices consider whether to accept a case. Four of the nine justices must vote to accept a case, and when a case is listed so many times, it usually means that requirement has not been met, and some justice is working on a dissent.
But on the last day of the term in June, the justices accepted the case without comment and scheduled it for oral argument in the fall.
The why is open to speculation. Perhaps the addition of conservative Justice Neil M. Gorsuch provided the needed fourth vote. But Gorsuch had been on the court for 11 weeks before the court announced it had added the case.
Some liberals wonder — hope might be a better word — whether a liberal justice might have tipped the scale. If the proliferation of cases around the country means Supreme Court intervention is inevitable, this theory goes, better to take it while Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is on the court. Kennedy, who is thought to be considering retirement, has written all of the court’s cases that expand protections for gay Americans.
Craig and Mullins, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, were disappointed. “We’re at the five-year point now,” Mullins said the other day. Phillips, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, gets another chance.
They all say there is nothing personal here.
“It has nothing to do with David and Charlie, it has everything to do with my faith in Jesus Christ and my following the teachings of the Bible,” Phillips said.
“This case isn’t about Jack Phillips and it isn’t about us,” Mullins said. “It’s about the principle that gay people should be able to receive equal service at businesses open to the public.”
For both sides, there is a question that is always asked.
For the couple, it is why not just go to a bakery that wants your business?
“We did ultimately go to a different bakery,” Mullins said. “The point of this case is that with this law we have in Colorado it is illegal to discriminate against and provide unequal service to gays in public accommodations. The next couple that wanders into a business that perhaps does not approve of their gay lifestyle — perhaps they won’t know that.”
For Phillips, the question is whether his actions really reflect a Christian approach to life. He is asked, What would Jesus do?
“Well, you know, in my opinion — Jesus was a carpenter. I don’t think he would have made a bed for their wedding,” Phillips said. “He would have never condoned something that he was against. ”