Culture

The Masterpiece Cakeshop Ruling Has Nothing to Do with Cake

What the contentious Supreme Court decision can teach us about the meaning of hospitality
Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images
Masterpiece Cakeshop SCOTUS Ruling

By now, you're probably familiar with the Supreme Court's seven-to-two ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the high-profile case involving a baker who refused on religious grounds to sell a custom wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

If you're curious enough, you may have even read the wonderfully engaging legalese that outlines the majority opinion in favor for the Christian baker, Jack Phillips, and the constitutional brainteaser at its core: Can religious liberty and civic equality coexist? The short answer: Sort of?

Let's quickly review. Back in 2012, after Phillips declined to make a custom same-sex wedding cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission stepped in and fined the baker, citing that Colorado state law blocks all public accommodations (businesses like Masterpiece Cakeshop) from refusing service to anyone based on religion, race, gender identity and the like. At the end of the day, the commission concluded Phillips discriminated based on sexual orientation.

Phillips then defended his right to decline services on the premise of religious freedom and free speech, igniting a dumpster fire across the Internet on whether or not Phillips's cakes should be considered a form of artistic expression. "It's more than just a cake," Phillips was quoted saying. "It's a piece of art in so many ways."

The Colorado state court rejected this defense, which sent the case to the highest court in all the land. And this week, six years later, the Supreme Court handed down its "narrow ruling," meaning it was decided on specific peculiarities of the case, not on the larger civil rights issues at play.

Essentially, the dispute was won on what feels like a technicality. The Court reversed the state court ruling, because it found that the Colorado Civil Rights Comission showed open bias against Phillips's religious beliefs, therefore violating his constitutional rights. Moral of the story is to be nice to all sides.

What all this means is we're more or less back to square one. No legal precedent was set, and the biggest losers, as Slate's Mark Joseph Stern puts it, are those "who hoped this decision would definitively settle the ostensible clash between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom."

To be sure, when we think about who is affected here—the religious right, the LGBTQ community and anyone protected by nondiscrimination laws—the implications go far beyond cake. What has been widely said by anyone familiar with the case bears repeating: Masterpiece was never about cake. The incident just so happened to occur at a cake shop in a forgettable strip mall in the suburbs of Denver.

There is no denying, however, that the case has everything to do with the industry in which the bakery operates: hospitality. Because underneath all that fondant, the case is about who is welcome where, and whether or not laws against discrimination must yield to religious beliefs. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, cosigned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, succinctly gets to the heart of the matter in a single sentence.

"When a couple contacts a bakery for a wedding cake, the product they are seeking is a cake celebrating their wedding—not a cake celebrating heterosexual weddings or same-sex weddings—and that is the service Craig and Mullins were denied."

That, at least for the scope of this argument, is the main takeaway. Hospitality is an industry that prides itself on making people feel welcome. It's like what Tom Colicchio told Eater, "When you put your shingle out, you have to serve people—all people—when they come to your establishment."

It's also helpful to frame Ginsburg's dissenting opinion within the "Chefs for Equality" amicus brief (a legal document written by parties not involved with the case but who have a strong interest), which was organized by the Human Rights Campaign and signed by more than 200 chefs including Colicchio, Josée Andrés, Anthony Bourdain and Christina Tosi. 

"The culinary community has joined this brief to relay a very simple message: 'We welcome all,'" HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said upon the release of the brief late last year. So what does inclusion mean now, and how do we move forward? In this particular case, it's worth considering that if we can't see queer Americans, we can't begin to understand the queer American experience without sinking into our own dogmatisms. That never was, and never will be, the definition of hospitality.

As we continue to examine social injustices in and out of the industry, it may be reassuring to realize that, ultimately, the Masterpiece ruling was a legal compromise, left to be fought on another day. And for now, that's a flag I'll gladly let forever wave.

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