September 7, 2017 at 6:21 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
DOJ files Supreme Court brief for baker who refused to serve gays
Title IX, gay news, Washington Blade

The Justice Department under Jeff Sessions is arguing for a right for a Colorado baker to refuse service to same-sex couples. (Photo by Gage Skidmore; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Justice Department has voluntarily weighed in on a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of a Colorado bakery asserting a First Amendment right to deny wedding cakes to same-sex couples.

The 41-page friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Justice Department under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes the case Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, has the freedom of expression right to refuse to make same-sex couples a wedding cake.

“Forcing Phillips to create expression for and participate in a ceremony that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs invades his First Amendment rights in a manner akin to the governmental intrusion in Hurley,” the filing says. “Colorado has not offered, and could not reasonably offer, a sufficient justification for that compulsion here.”

The arguments presented by the Justice Department seem crafted for limited application to the baking of wedding cakes. At one point, the brief asserts the cake “signifies and celebrates the beginning of a marriage — namely, the ceremony in which the newlyweds cut the cake together and sometimes feed it to each other.”

The Justice Department also argues the prohibition of racial discrimination is a compelling reason to subordinate freedom of expression to non-discrimination laws, but “the same cannot be said for opposition to same-sex marriage.”

“The Court has not similarly held that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject to strict scrutiny or that eradicating private individuals’ opposition to same-sex marriage is a uniquely compelling interest,” the filing says. “To the contrary, the Court has recognized that opposition to same-sex marriage ‘long has been held — and continues to be held — in good faith by reasonable and sincere people,” and that ‘[m]any who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises.'”

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in June after an administrative judge ruled Masterpiece Cakeshop illegally discriminated against a same-sex couple by refusing to sell them a wedding cake — a decision the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld in 2015. The Colorado Supreme Court has declined to review these decisions and let them stand.

Lauren Ehrsam, a Justice Department spokesperson, said the Justice Department filed the brief “because the First Amendment protects the right of free expression for all Americans.”

“Although public-accommodations laws serve important purposes, they — like other laws — must yield to the individual freedoms that the First Amendment guarantees,” Ehrsam said. “That includes the freedom not to create expression for ceremonies that violate one’s religious beliefs.”

Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple, filed the lawsuit against Masterpiece Cakeshop after they asked Phillips to design and produce a wedding cake in 2012 for their wedding in Massachusetts. Phillips refused based on his religious beliefs, but said he would be happy to make and sell them other baked goods.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mullins and Craig, alleging the bakery discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. Representing Masterpiece Cakeshop is Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBT legal group designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

Among the arguments in the brief asserting the supremacy of Masterpiece Cakeshop right to refuse service over Colorado’s non-discrimination is the state’s own absence of marriage equality at the time the purchase was requested.

“In other words, the State itself did not acknowledge the validity of the union it sought to compel petitioners to celebrate,” the brief says. “It was not until October 2014, after federal courts had ruled that Colorado’s same-sex marriage laws were invalid, that the State began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Especially given that background, the State has not advanced a sufficient state interest to override petitioners’ weighty First Amendment interest in declining to create the expression at issue here.”

It’s not the first voluntary anti-gay amicus brief the Justice Department filed under the Trump administration. The department also made a filing before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals arguing Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 affords no non-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the filing was the latest in a series of anti-LGBT moves from the Trump administration.

“This Justice Department has already made its hostility to the rights of LGBT people and so many others crystal clear,” Melling said. “But this brief was shocking, even for this administration. What the Trump Administration is advocating for is nothing short of a constitutional right to discriminate. We are confident that the Supreme Court will rule on the side of equal rights just as the lower courts have.”

The brief is consistent with remarks Sessions gave in July at an Orange County conference for Alliance Defending Freedom in which he pledged to make protecting religious freedom a priority.

“The federal government will actively find ways to accommodate people of all faiths,” Sessions said at the time. “The protections enshrined in the Constitution and our laws protect all Americans, including when we work together, speak in the public square, and when we interact with our government. We don’t waive our constitutional rights when we participate fully in public life and civic society.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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