Visitors wait in line to enter the Supreme Court building in Washington as the court begins it’s new term on Monday, Oct. 2. On Dec. 5, the court will hear arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, over whether a business can refuse service based on a person’s religious beliefs.
(Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call/via AP Images)

Masterpiece Cakeshop case brings up the ghosts of civil rights cases past

Lisa Keen | Keen News Service


In just about a month, the big bronze doors of the U. S. Supreme Court building will swing open as a gay plaintiff emerges from the ornate judicial sanctum with his attorneys, squinting into the sun glaring off the white marble steps. They’ll cluster in front of a mob of reporters and cameras on the plaza in front of the famous façade. And they’ll explain how they believe the justices heard their plea: that same-sex couples should be treated the same as male-female couples.

Wait! What? The Supreme Court is going to argue the same-sex marriage ban, again?!

Not exactly. But on so many levels, the Supreme Court’s review of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado on Dec. 5 will feel like déjà vu all over again.

Two years ago, in Obergefell v. Hodges, attorneys for LGBT people argued that states should treat same-sex couples the same as male-female couples in the issuance and recognition of marriage licenses.

Two years prior to that, in U.S. v. Windsor, the argument was that the federal government should treat the marriages of same-sex couples the same as male-female couples for federal purposes. And that same year, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the court heard that California voters should be able to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

It was 11 years ago, in Romer v. Evans, that the court heard the argument over a law passed by Colorado voters, seeking to enable businesses, landlords, employers and others to ignore local laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Now, with Masterpiece Cakeshop, the court will consider whether a business in Colorado can ignore a state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in order to refuse service to same-sex couples.

In this case, the business is a baker who specializes in elaborately decorated cakes, suitable for a wedding reception. But the baker refused to sell any one of his fabulously ornate cakes to a same-sex couple, claiming that to do so would offend his religious beliefs — beliefs that purportedly consider marriage between two people of the same sex to be a biblical offense.

Even this claim conjures up great moments in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1968’s Newman v. Piggie Park, the owner of some drive-in restaurants had argued that a federal law prohibiting discrimination based on race in public accommodations “contravenes the will of God and constitutes an interference with the free exercise” of the business owner’s religion. The high court did not agree. In fact, it referred to the argument as “patently frivolous.”

And four years earlier, in Atlanta Motel v. U.S., the high court ruled against the owner of a hotel in Atlanta who refused to accommodate blacks. The owner claimed the federal public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act deprived him of his liberty and the right to choose with whom he would do business.

“I remember the signs that said ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Colored Only,’” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the black Civil Rights Movement and a strong ally of the LGBT community. “I remember when, everywhere you looked, there was blatant discrimination against people based on the color of their skin.

“It’s time you learn that the tactics may change, but the will remains the same,” Lewis said. “Each and every one of us has an obligation to speak up and speak out for the right of each and every person to be treated with dignity and with respect.”

Lewis was one of several speakers at an ACLU-sponsored telephone press conference Monday, Oct. 30, drawing attention to the vast number of briefs that have been filed in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. They include the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 1,300 faith leaders, 200 members of Congress, 150 mayors, hundreds of chefs and restaurant owners, and such major corporations as Apple and Marriott.

While the Masterpiece Cakeshop case represents an instance of a same-sex couple being denied service at a bakery, Rachel Tiven, chief executive officer at Lambda Legal, said her group has received reports of same-sex couples being refused service at a wide variety of public accommodations venues. Among them, she said at Monday’s press conference, have been hotels, doctors’ offices, child birth classes, funeral homes, tow truck operators and homeless shelters.

James Essex, an attorney with the national ACLU, which is representing the gay couple refused service by the Masterpiece Cakeshop, said the question before the court is whether the U.S. Constitution protects a right to discriminate “based either on religion or artistic freedom.” And the position taken by the Trump administration and attorneys supporting the Masterpiece Cake baker, Jack Phillips, is “extreme and could well license discrimination against many people,” he said.

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