DENVER — A case that tests the boundaries of religious freedom and gay rights came to the Colorado Court of Appeals on Tuesday, with a suburban Denver baker urging judges not to force him to make cakes for same-sex couples because it would violate his beliefs.
But attorneys representing a gay couple who were denied a wedding cake in 2012 countered that allowing businesses to turn away customers through religious exemptions will facilitate future discrimination.
"Religious beliefs do not put the cake shop above the law," argued Ria Mar, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the couple. The court will issue a ruling later.
The case underscores how the already simmering tension between religious-freedom advocates and gay-rights supporters is likely to become more heated in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling last month legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
"What the relationship is between that reality and sort of what that will mean for things like service provisions is where I think the battles will really be fought now," said Melissa Hart, a law professor at the University of Colorado.
As gay rights gained greater acceptance in recent years, the Colorado case and others like it in other states have ignited a passionate debate over whether individuals can cite their beliefs as a basis for declining to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony. In other states, gay couples have prevailed.
Last week, the owners of a Portland, Oregon-area bakery that declined to make a wedding cake for a gay couple two years ago were ordered to pay $135,000 in damages. Two years ago, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a photographer who wouldn't take pictures of a gay couple's 2006 commitment ceremony violated the state's anti-discrimination law.
In Washington state, a florist has been fighting a lawsuit filed after she refused to provide services for a gay wedding in 2013.
At the center of the Colorado case are baker Jack Phillips, owner of Lakewood's Masterpiece Cakeshop, and Charlie Craig and David Mullins, who were married in Massachusetts and wanted a wedding cake to celebrate in Colorado.
Phillips said he has no problem serving gay people at his store, but he says that making a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his Christian beliefs.
Craig and Mullins filed a complaint with Colorado's Civil Rights Commission. In December 2013, a judge for the commission ruled that Phillips discriminated against the couple and ordered him to change his store policy against making cakes for gay weddings or face fines.
Phillips appealed the ruling. He has stopped making wedding cakes entirely out of fear that he'll violate the order that he make them for everyone, his attorneys said.
One of his attorneys, Jeremy Tedesco, argued his client should be protected by the First Amendment and that he shouldn't be forced to express something he doesn't believe.
"Mr. Phillips has the same First Amendment right as the cake artist who doesn't want to create a Confederate Flag cake," Tedesco said.
Craig and Mullins held hands by the side of the courtroom during the arguments while Phillips sat near his attorneys. He told reporters afterward that he doesn't regret his decision to decline baking a cake for Craig and Mullins. One of his attorneys said they would consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court if they lose at this stage.
Nicolle Martin, who also represents Phillips, said "the stakes are far greater than they were just a few short days ago."
"Because certain pressures are going to be placed on all people of faith," she said. "All freedom-loving Americans are going to be faced with this issue at one point or another."
Mullins, meanwhile, said marriage equality is just one part of the quest for gay rights. "Our case and others like it address another element, that of equal access to public accommodations," he said.
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