A Tale of Two Cakes: The Real Truth About Colorado's Cake Wars

Colorado has been ground zero for the "cake wars," a seemingly trivial conflict with some serious principles at stake. Since the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defends religious liberty, freedom of speech, marriage equality and equal protection from discrimination, we care about the distinctions that these two recent high profile cake cases in Colorado illustrate between genuine religious liberty and discrimination in the name of religion.

It all began when David Mullins and Charlie Craig entered Masterpiece Cakeshop in July 2012 to order a cake for their wedding reception. They planned to marry in Massachusetts and then celebrate with family and friends in Colorado. Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips refused service to the couple based on his opposition to same-sex marriage, citing his religious beliefs. David and Charlie filed complaints with the Colorado Civil Rights Division under long-established public accommodations laws protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled in May 2014 that Masterpiece Cakeshop unlawfully discriminated against David and Charlie.

Shortly before the Commission ruling in that case, Bill Jack of Castle Rock approached Azucar Bakery in Denver with a different request: a Bible-shaped cake with anti-gay messages and symbols on it. Bakery owner Marjorie Silva was willing to make the cake but not to write offensive messages on it. She offered frosting and pastry tubes so that Mr. Jack could write on it himself, but he declined. Last week, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled in favor of Ms. Silva that she had not unlawfully discriminated against Mr. Jack.

Are these two cases the same? Not at all. David and Charlie were legitimate customers who experienced discrimination based on who they were. They were turned down before there was any discussion of the design of the cake, and it is clear that Masterpiece Cakeshop would deny wedding cakes to any same-sex couple while providing them to heterosexual couples, an obvious violation of public accommodation laws.

Bill Jack, however, was only engaged in a stunt to make a point, apparently hoping to be turned down. Ms. Silva attempted to accommodate his request while refusing to add offensive messages that she would refuse no matter who requested them. It is worth note that Azucar Bakery frequently makes cakes for Christian religious ceremonies, with no pattern or policy of discrimination.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission decided both cases correctly and consistently.

Mr. Jack has gone on to claim that all he wanted was Bible verses on a cake, which is both false and ironic. According to even his own most recent account, none his requests actually consisted solely of accurate quotations from the Bible. For example, one verse he claims to have requested, "Homosexuality is a detestable sin," doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the term homosexual didn't exist for hundreds of years after the Bible was written.

Regardless of their source, the words and accompanying drawing that Bill Jack requested were clearly intended to offend the baker, who turned down only the purposely offensive message, not the customer for being Christian. Irresponsible voices in the media have intentionally attempted to confuse the two cake cases, and at least one commentator has targeted the ACLU for its stand as supposedly anti-religion or anti-Bible. In reality, the ACLU has a nearly 100-year history of defending the freedom of belief and worship (or not) for everyone, including Christians. No organization in the country fights harder for true religious liberty as it was intended by the First Amendment, including freedom from religious tests, government-sponsored religion or discrimination on the basis of religion in the public square.

Those who would use the cake cases to promote legislation allowing businesses to discriminate in the name of religion should be careful what they ask for. These laws have the potential to open the door to all kinds of discrimination, including actual discrimination against Christians if businesses don't want to serve them. If that happens, they may need the ACLU, and if so, we'll be here.