Should bakers be compelled to decorate a cake with a groom couple and a bride couple?
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

After all the heated rhetoric over Indiana’s controversial religious freedom law, this rights debate could ultimately come down to a cake war. Just as diners were at the epicenter of the fight over racial desegregation, bakeries have become a flashpoint today.

Conservatives in Indiana and elsewhere have objected to bakers (and florists and photographers) being “forced by the government to participate in a homosexual wedding.” While those conservatives have been rightly ridiculed for failing to explain how the Indiana law as originally formulated would not license bigotry, critics can be equally chastised for failing to explain where to draw the line between religious freedom and discrimination. Asked on CNN this week whether a Jewish baker should have to make a cake for a KKK couple, Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, insisted that “there’s a huge difference between having to write something objectionable on a cake and being asked to provide a cake for a same sex couple.”

Of course, for some religious bakers, a cake with language or an image celebrating same-sex marriage is objectionable. In other words, critics may be trying to have their cake and eat it, too.

Consider two cases that both happen to involve bakeries in or near Denver, Colo. In July 2012, David Mullins and Charlie Craig visited Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a wedding cake. Owner Jack Phillips said that, due to his Christian beliefs, he could not provide a cake for the celebration of a same-sex marriage. Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission ultimately ruled that the bakery broke the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Now, the flip side. In March 2014, Christian customer Bill Jack asked Azucar Bakery to prepare two cakes in the shape of Bibles — with an X over the image of two men holding hands. Owner Marjorie Silva said she would make the cakes but refused to include what she found to be an offensive message. Jack filed a religious discrimination claim that’s now pending with the state’s civil rights division.

Two sets of cakes. Two different sentiments viewed as offensive. Can we compel the baker in one case and permit the other to refuse? And should the right to refuse be limited to religious objections? There are an array of messages that offend non-religious persons or violate non-religious values. Glibly saying that you cannot discriminate ignores legitimate questions of forced speech and forced participation.

I’ve struggled with the tension between anti-discrimination laws and free speech/free exercise for years, and I see three basic approaches to resolving it:

Let them eat cake. As one option, we could maintain a strict neutrality rule that requires businesses to serve all customers, even when they find customers or their requests (whether involving cakes or flowers or photographs) to be offensive. If you choose to go into a particular business, you lose the ability to withhold services based on the content of messages or the specific attributes of an event. That would mean a bakery couldn’t refuse to inscribe an anti-gay message on a cake — or a birthday message to someone named Adolf Hitler Campbell (which a New Jersey ShopRite said no to a few years ago). Under this approach, a cake would be viewed as a form of speech of the customer, not the baker.

No cake for you. The second possibility is an absolute discretionary rule that allows businesses to decline services or products when they substantially burden religious values. This could lead to a significant rollback of this country’s progress since desegregation. Even the sponsors of the Indiana law have indicated that they do not want such a broad rule.

Speech-free cake. A third option would be to allow a limited exception for expressive services or products. Under this approach, a bakery could not refuse to sell basic cakes to anyone but it could refuse to customize cakes with objectionable symbols or words. A florist could not refuse to supply standard flower arrangements from a pre-set menu but could object to designing and styling, say, the venue of a same-sex event. Likewise, photographers — whose work is inherently expressive, as they select particular moments to capture, frame compositions and create a product tailored to specific clients — could claim an expressive exception in declining to work at events they find offensive.

Frankly, none of these options is entirely satisfying, and all three would lead to tough cases on the margins. For instance, the uniformity and clarity of the “let them eat cake” approach is appealing. Yet it’s hard to imagine compelling Jewish bakers to make Nazi cakes or African American bakers to make KKK cakes. On the other hand, if we allow for expressive exceptions, we’ll have to determine whether or not a funeral director, say, is engaged in an expressive act.

If we are unwilling to impose an absolute rule of service regardless of content, then we need to be honest about our reservations and look more closely at how to allow people to opt out of certain expressive services. If people can decline offensive services, we need to focus our attention on defining those services that are inherently expressive and those that are not. We need to discuss not the central issue of discrimination but those cases on the margins that deal with legitimate speech. As Benjamin Franklin noted, “a great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges.”