The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Artists shouldn’t need to choose between their conscience and their craft

Getty Images

In less than a month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

It’s no secret that the court’s ruling has the potential to make a profound and lasting impact on society. Multiple sources have referred to the case as one of the most important religious liberty cases in decades. The court’s decision, as I’ve written previously, could shape a generation’s understanding of the First Amendment and the specific freedoms that it guarantees for all Americans.

But the outcome of Masterpiece Cakeshop will also be deeply personal, not only for Denver-area cake artist Jack Phillips, but for untold numbers of creative professionals scattered across the country. The story begins with Jack, but it doesn’t end there.

{mosads}Anyone following Jack’s case with even passing interest will have heard the basic facts. In 2012, two men asked Jack to create a wedding cake to celebrate their same-sex marriage. Jack offered to sell them any premade baked items in his store or to create a cake for them for another occasion, but he declined their request to create a custom cake to celebrate same-sex marriage.

But few have heard in detail about the hateful calls and messages Jack began receiving almost immediately after that conversation. Or the very specific death threat Jack received one afternoon, forcing him to take immediate action to protect his daughter and granddaughter who were with him at the shop that day. Or the fact that he continues to receive death threats to this very day.

And not everyone understands that, in order to remain true to his conscience, Jack has had to sacrifice much of his craft. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ordered Jack to celebrate same-sex marriages through his art or exit the wedding cake industry altogether. To continue creating wedding cakes would require Jack to violate his conscience every time he received a request for a cake celebrating a same-sex marriage; therefore, Jack made the difficult choice to stop designing wedding cakes. This decision has cost him about 40 percent of his business and caused him to lose most of his employees.

And if Jack loses at the Supreme Court, he may well be facing the end of his decades-old business all because of his government’s hostility toward his faith. This case is deeply personal for him, and it goes far beyond one decision on one afternoon. It will determine whether he is truly free as an artist.

And he’s not the only one.

Barronelle Stutzman is the Washington grandmother and floral artist who faces not only the loss of her business, but also her life savings. Like Jack, Barronelle politely declined an invitation to celebrate a same-sex marriage through her artistry. Her longtime client and friend asked her to create custom floral arrangements for his wedding; when Barronelle explained that her faith prevented her from participating, he filed a lawsuit, as did the state attorney general. The ruling in Jack’s case could determine Barronelle’s fate and the future of her family business, which has survived through four generations and 47 years.

The list goes on: Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski of Brush & Nib Studio; Carl and Angel Larsen of Telescope Media Group, Blaine Adamson of Hands On Originals — these are just a few of the creative professionals currently defending their First Amendment freedoms in court. Eventually, countless others might also be presented with the ultimatum “Your conscience or your craft.”

Religious artists aren’t the only ones who find themselves on the horns of this dilemma. Consider designers like Sophia Theallet, who — following the election of Donald Trump — cited her “artistic freedom” in publicly refusing to “participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady.” Other designers quickly followed suit. If Jack Phillips is forced to participate in a wedding ceremony that violates his conscience, might Theallet also be forced to participate in an inauguration ceremony that violates hers?

In the musical arena, consider singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, who filed a lawsuit after John McCain used Browne’s song “Running on Empty” during the 2008 presidential campaign. If Browne refuses to allow a Republican candidate to use his music, should he be barred from offering it to a Democratic candidate? Or consider a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who offers her services as a writer. Should she be forced to compose speeches for Republican candidates or abandon the field of speechwriting entirely? (After all, political affiliation is a protected class in some jurisdictions, including D.C.)

If a Muslim graphic designer creates materials advertising religious services at a local mosque, should he be forced to design fliers for a Scientology meeting? And, returning to Jack’s chosen canvas, if cake artist Catherine George designs a cake for an advocacy group’s “marriage equality” fundraiser, should she also be required to offer her artistic talents to an organization’s “marriage by God’s design” gala?

Our personal opinions about the individual stances described above shouldn’t determine our willingness to protect their decisions. Said differently, our commitment to artistic freedom shouldn’t depend on whose ox is being gored. We are a diverse society, filled with individuals of all backgrounds, beliefs, educational experiences, values, and convictions. A failure to embrace and protect freedom for all people to live and work consistent with their beliefs is a failure to preserve our diverse national fabric.

The Supreme Court’s decision will profoundly affect real people. Their stories matter. Their freedom matters, too.

James Gottry is legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Jack Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Tags Cake Donald Trump James Gottry John McCain Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission Same-sex marriage wedding

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Civil Rights News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video