By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When conservative Christian baker Jack Phillips in 2012 politely but firmly told Colorado gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig he would not make them a cake to celebrate their wedding, it triggered a chain of events that will climax on Tuesday in highly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court arguments.
Phillips contends the U.S. Constitution’s free speech guarantees protect him from making a cake that would violate his religious beliefs against gay marriage. To Mullins and Craig, the baker’s refusal represented a simple case of unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In one of the biggest cases of the conservative-majority court’s nine-month term, the justices — just two years after legalizing gay marriage — must decide whether Phillips’ action was constitutionally protected and he can avoid punishment for violating Colorado anti-discrimination law.
A ruling favoring Phillips could open the door for certain businesses to spurn gay couples by invoking religious beliefs, as some wedding photographers, florists and others already have done.
The brief encounter at Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood left Mullins and Craig distraught. They filed a successful complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the first step in the five-year-old legal battle that the nine justices will resolve in a ruling due by the end of June.
The baker’s lawyers argue that because his cakes are artistic endeavors, guarantees of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protect Phillips from being forced to make baked creations that express a message he opposes on religious grounds.
Mullins and Craig were planning their wedding in Massachusetts that September and wanted the cake for a reception to be held in Colorado, where gay marriage was not yet legal. Craig’s mother witnessed the tense exchange, which he said made it harder for him to bear.
“I ended up starting to cry because I felt really bad and overwhelmed that my mom had to see me go through this. I guess it was the feeling of helplessness,” Craig said in an interview.
Phillips said he offered to sell the couple other products in his store but was adamant that his religious beliefs compelled him to draw a line when it comes to certain issues.
‘I SERVE EVERYBODY’
“Everybody that comes in my store is welcome in my store,” Phillips said in an interview. “I serve everybody that comes in and I create…