Two legal rivals that duke out religious freedom cases are in unusual positions after a Denver bakery refused to make a cake decorated with the words “God hates gays” and an "X" over two men holding hands.
The case involves Azucar Bakery owner Marjorie Silva, who told KUSA-TV that making such a cake would be "just very discriminatory and hateful." In response, Bill Jack, a Christian, complained he was the victim of religious discrimination. Colorado officials have since launched a formal investigation.
The case inverts an increasingly common narrative in which Christian business owners have used religious objections as the basis to refuse service to LGBT customers. This turning of the tables also reverses the roles of advocacy groups — for example, one group that typically defends Christians in religious liberty cases is supporting the LGBT-friendly baker.
“It was clearly Ms. Silva’s right to decline to promote a message with which she so clearly disagreed," Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "Ms. Silva should not be forced to use her artistic abilities to further a message with which she sincerely disagrees."
Tedesco's group, although not involved in this latest case, has represented bakers in two similar recent cases in which the business owners were Christian: In Colorado, Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips refused to sell a cake to a same-sex couple, and in Washington State, Arlene's Flowers is currently being sued for denying gay men flowers for their wedding.
On the other side of the courtroom in both past cases — Masterpiece Cakeshop and Arlene's Flowers — the American Civil Liberties Union represented the customers. Now the ACLU, which is also not directly involved in this newest case, supports the baker's right to refuse service.
"Folks are trying to compare the Azucar Bakery story to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case... but in fact the two situations are quite different," ACLU staff attorney Amanda Goad said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
The baker refusing service, she said, is "based on a neutral standard of taste that she would apply to any customer," and is different from barring customers "not because of what the desired cake looked like, but because of who they are."
Goad noted that the baker was willing to make a cake shaped like a Bible and said the case "shouldn’t lead anyone to support a law that would allow businesses to discriminate against gay customers."
After a wave of court rulings in 2014 that legalized same-sex marriage across most of the United States, religious freedom has become an increasingly contested battle ground. Lawmakers and groups, including ADF, have pushed harder for more laws that protect people who exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs. This year, several religious freedom bills have been filed or are expected in Texas, Georgia, Indiana, Utah, North Carolina, and other states.
Jack, the customer involved in the latest Colorado case, told KUSA-TV in a statement: "I believe I was discriminated against by the bakery based on my creed."
In response, Silva, the baker, said, "It's unfair that he's accusing me of discriminating when I think he was the one that is discriminating."
The complaint against Silva's bakery is currently before Colorado's Department of Regulatory Agencies.
Officials would not comment on the case itself due to confidentiality rules, only discrimination cases generally. If officials find discrimination has occurred and the parties do not settle, the case may be referred to the state's civil rights commission or a court.
Jennifer McPherson, Colorado Civil Rights Division interim director, said penalties could range from fines of $50 to $500, or the state could mandate that the business cease its discriminatory practices.
Dominic Holden is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Dominic Holden at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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