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What Is the Supreme Court Wedding Cake Case and Why Is Everyone Talking About It?

December 5, 2017, 5:40 PM UTC

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a high-profile case pitting Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Denver, against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that casts the First Amendment protections of free speech and free exercise of religion against gay rights and anti-discrimination measures.

Cake for same-sex marriage

The Supreme Court case—one of this term’s blockbusters—all started with a wedding cake. Two gay men, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, asked Masterpiece baker Jack Phillips to create a cake to celebrate their pending nuptials—planned to take place in Massachusetts—in 2012. The baker, a devout Christian, refused; he said the couple could purchase a different kind of cake, but that he would not design a custom cake since doing so would conflict with his religious belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

After being turned away, Craig and Mullins took their case to the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the agency ruled that Phillips’s refusal violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws and that he could not turn the couple down on the basis of free speech. (Phillips argues that being forced to create a same-sex wedding cake would constitute compelled speech.)

Gay marriage meets Hobby Lobby

Now before the Supreme Court, the case marks the convergence of two legal juggernauts the justices have—until now—considered separately: gay rights and religious freedom.

Protestors Hold Rallies Outside Supreme Court Over Cakeshop Civil Rights Case
The cake for the same sex wedding of Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins is at the heart of the case. They appeared at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Just two years ago, the Supreme Court in 2015 handed a historic win to the LGBT community by deciding that same-sex couple had equal right to marry. Yet a year earlier, in the closely-watched Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, it had opened the door for closely-held corporations to challenge federal laws by citing religious liberty. On Tuesday, the high court considers both issues at once.

Trump as an ally

Phillips, the baker, has a powerful ally in his fight: the Trump administration. It filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in September, stating: “Forcing Phillips to create expression for and participate in a ceremony that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs invades his First Amendment rights.”

What’s at stake?

If all this—the same sex ceremony, the wedding vendor, religious freedom versus gay rights—sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the Supreme Court considered hearing a similar case involving a photography studio in New Mexico in 2014, but declined to weigh in.

In deciding to take up the Masterpiece Cakeshop case at a time when support for gay marriage is surging, the court—in its first full term with Justice Neil Gorsuch on the bench—will test its own commitment to gay rights and, perhaps, put its stamp on the anti-discrimination laws—similar to Colorado’s—that are on the books in more than 20 other states.