Denver, Colo., Jan 28, 2015 / 17:02 pm
The battleground for religious freedom is currently the soft, frosted tops of cakes in Colorado.
Jack Phillips, owner of the Lakewood, Colo., Masterpiece Cakeshop, was sued in July 2012 for refusing to make a same-sex "wedding" cake on the grounds that it violated his Christian beliefs. He and his staff were ordered by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to undergo anti-discrimination training and to submit quarterly reports on changing company policies.
In July 2014, the commission rejected Phillips request to temporarily suspend the orders against him while his case proceeds in court.
It has recently come to light that at that same hearing, Diann Rice, a member of the commission, compared Phillips' case to that of the Holocaust, which cost 6 million Jewish lives, and slavery.
"Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust," Commissioner Rice said at the hearing.
"And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use – to use their religion to hurt others."
Meanwhile, down the street in Denver, Azucar Bakery owner Marjorie Silva is fighting a similar battle, but with a slightly different twist.
Bill Jack approached Azucar bakery in March 2014 and ordered a Bible-shaped cake. When the cake was nearly done, Jack asked Silva to add two men holding hands with an X through them, and anti-gay written sentiments to the cake.
When Silva refused to create the cake, Jack told KUSA-TV he believed he "was discriminated against by the bakery based on my creed."
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado, who has supported the legal action against Phillips, contended that the case differs from Phillips because he had refused to make any wedding cake for two men, while Silva only objected to a single message.
But Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco, who is supporting Philips' case, said these two cases are dealing with the exact same principle.
"Whether you have a narrow objection or a broad objection, what matters is the basis of your objection, the fact that you don't want to engage in expression that violates your beliefs," he said. "They're both in the exact same position, they both don't want to create a cake that expresses a message that they disagree with."
Tedesco said the Azucar case will make for a telling test of the Civil Rights Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union, as far as which rights and whose rights they are willing to uphold.
"They're either going to have to play favorites when it comes to these issues… or they're going to have to disregard everybody's rights and say that no one has this first amendment freedom in Colorado."
"The ACLU is now having to say, under these circumstances (Silva) has every right to say no," Tedesco added. "So if we were to rely on the ACLU for when to creating a cake creation is speech and when it's not, I guarantee you, the only people who would ever be creating expression when they bake cakes are people who agree with the ACLU's ideological beliefs."
Tedesco added that he found the commissioner's anti-religious sentiments during Phillips' hearing to be disquieting.
"Such alarming bias and hostility toward Jack's religious beliefs – and toward religion in general – has no place in civil society, let alone on a governmental commission that sits in judgment of whether he may follow his faith in how he runs his business," he said.
"Commissioner Rice compared a private citizen who owns a small bakery to slaveholders and Holocaust perpetrators merely for asking that the state respect his right to free speech and free exercise of religion."
CNA sought comment from the Department of Regulatory Agencies, which oversees the commission. A spokeswoman said that the department staff and commission members are not free to discuss the hearing because it is presently before the Colorado Court of Appeals.
These two cake cases are part of an increasing trend against religious freedom, warned Tedesco, and all Americans should be concerned. He pointed out that a flower shop in Washington State has been sued for declining to take part in a same-sex ceremony and an Idaho wedding chapel run by a husband and wife who are both ordained ministers has been told to perform same-sex ceremonies or face the possibility of jail time or fines.
"A government that forces any American to create a message contrary to his own convictions and surrender his livelihood is a government every American should fear," Tedesco said. "Today the government is targeting Jack Phillips, but tomorrow it could be you."