While it is not altogether uncommon to see signs hanging in businesses stating, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” those words are not altogether true, according to Colorado law. Nor should they be. They may give business owners leeway to rid themselves of the occasional drunk or blowhard, but they do not allow for wholesale refusal to do business with a particular sort of clientele. As a matter of law, when your business is open to the public, the public is welcome.
This requirement was lost on a Denver baker who refused to provide cake-making services to a gay couple on the premise that their marriage – which was performed in Massachusetts and was to be celebrated in Colorado – violated his religious sensibilities. Be that as it may, it is not a sufficient reason to refuse service. The Colorado public-accommodations law could not be more clear on the matter: “It is a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from, or deny to an individual or a group, because of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry, the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations.” As such, the baker or any business person’s religious beliefs are irrelevant when it comes to serving the public.
An administrative law judge rightly reminded Jack Phillips, baker and owner of Masterpiece Cake Shop, of this reality when he ordered him in a Friday ruling to “cease and desist from discriminating.” As Judge Robert N. Spencer pointed out, Phillips’ or any business owners’ personal beliefs are important, but not so much as following anti-discrimination laws. “At first blush, it may seem reasonable that a private business should be able to refuse service to anyone it chooses. This view, however, fails to take into account the cost to society and the hurt caused to persons who are denied service simply because of who they are,” Spencer wrote in the order.
In the cake case, Charlie Craig and David Mullins were facing just that, and American Civil Liberties Union took up their protest by filing a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It was rather clear cut, and Spencer’s ruling confirms that Phillips’ religious liberty defense has no legal merit.
Phillips’ attorney Nicolle Martin said that the ruling compromises his religious freedoms as well as his ability to earn a living. “He can’t violate his conscience in order to collect a paycheck. If Jack can’t make wedding cakes, he can’t continue to support his family. And in order to make wedding cakes, Jack must violate his belief system. That is a reprehensible choice. It is antithetical to everything America stands for,” Martin said. That is a bit hyperbolic and certainly no legal defense.
While Phillips is under no obligation to change his religious beliefs or how they inform his opinions about same-sex business, he is obligated to provide his baking services for those who seek them, regardless of their sexual orientation. Colorado law is clear, as was a state judge. That is the right outcome.