The encounter between a same-sex couple and a Colorado baker lasted just a few seconds -- but the legal, political and social impact could extend for decades after the Supreme Court takes up their case on Tuesday.
The justices will hear oral arguments in perhaps the most closely watched appeal so far this term, pitting religious conviction against anti-discrimination laws.
At issue is the July 2012 encounter, when Charlie Craig and David Mullins of Denver visited Masterpiece Cakeshop to buy a custom-made wedding cake. Owner Jack Phillips refused his services when told it was for a same-sex couple. A state civil rights commission sanctioned Phillips after a formal complaint from the gay couple.
"This case has never been about cakes," Mullins told Fox News. "It's about the rights of gay people to receive equal service in business and not be afraid of being turned away because of who they are. It's about basic access to public life."
But the Trump administration backs Phillips, who is represented in court by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit. He has lost at every step in the legal appeals process.
"I serve everybody that comes in: gay, straight, Catholic, Muslim, atheist. I welcome everybody into my shop," Phillips told Fox News recently. "I just don't create cakes for every event that's presented to me."
Phillips says he has lost business and had to let employees go because of the controversy.
The court on Tuesday will examine whether applying Colorado's public accommodations law to compel the local baker to create commercial "expression" violates his constitutionally protected Christian beliefs about marriage.
By wading again into the culture wars, the justices will have to confront recent decisions on both gay rights and religious liberty: a 2015 landmark opinion legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide and a separate 2014 decision affirming the right of some companies to act on their owner's faith by refusing to provide contraception to its workers.
'My bakery, my family, my life, the work I get to do, is a gift from God and I want to honor Him in everything I do.'
Chief Justice John Roberts predicted the current legal dilemma in his gay marriage dissent: "Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage."
Craig and Mullins met on a blind date in late 2010, and decided to get married a couple of years later. Since Colorado did not permit it at the time, they tied the knot in Massachusetts. While planning for a hometown reception with friends and family, the two decided to visit Phillips' small shop in a Denver suburb.
Along with Craig's mother and a book of ideas, they met with Phillips for just 20 seconds by the owner's account, when he said he told them, "Guys, I don't make cakes for same-sex weddings."
"What followed was a horrible pregnant pause during which what was happening really sunk in and we were mortified and embarrassed," recalled Mullins. "We teared up. It was a very painful and emotional moment for us."
"It made us feel helpless," added Craig. "To this day I feel like Dave and I are sort of on guard when we go into public accommodations, whether we can talk about our relationship openly for the fear of being discriminated against again."
Phillips was behind the counter at his shop when Fox News visited him last week. Using a palette of colored icing, he sculpted sugary designs that included red birds and the Denver Broncos football logo.
"It's not about turning away these customers, it's about doing a cake for an event -- a religious sacred event -- that conflicts with my conscience," he said earlier. "My bakery, my family, my life, the work I get to do, is a gift from God and I want to honor Him in everything I do."
The soft-spoken Phillips adds that like other artists, he has turned away cake requests for a variety of reasons: baked goods with profanity or obscene images, racial stereotypes, even those that he says would disparage homosexuals.
The Trump administration agrees with Phillips' legal claims to a large extent. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in October issued broad guidance to executive branch agencies, reiterating the government should respect religious freedom, which in the Justice Department's eyes extends to people, businesses and organizations.
"Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country," President Trump said in May, adding his administration "will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore."
But civil rights groups worry the conservative majority on the court may be ready to peel back protections for groups with a history of enduring discrimination.
“A ruling in this case to give businesses the right to refuse service to customers would shatter longstanding non-discrimination laws and have wide impacts on religious and racial minorities, single mothers, people with disabilities, and others," James Esseks, director of the ACLU's LGBT and HIV Project, said.
The case raises tough moral and legal questions that courts are increasingly being asked to navigate:
- When certain businesses open their doors, do they in essence get to choose their customer base, by creating exceptions for whom they will serve?
- Do artists and others who provide subjective, personalized content have any discretion to refuse or tailor their creations -- based on religious or moral beliefs?
- Couldn't Mullins and Craig have found another bakery to accommodate them, a practical solution in the eyes of many that would avoid further conflict between customer and owner?
- Does the LGBT community deserve a higher level of protection from civil rights discrimination -- in the same class as race, sex, and disability -- when it comes to states passing and enforcing statutes involving sexual orientation?
Sitting in their comfortable home, the couple at the center of the case said they are anxious to put their half-decade legal odyssey behind them.
“Five years is a long time to continue talk about a situation that has happened," Mullins said. "But it has forced us to really come together as couple and support each other. I think we have been stronger for it."
Mullins, an office manager and part-time musician and photographer, and Craig, who is an interior designer, express hope their case sends a clear social message.
"We were doing this initially for ourselves. But, along the way we have heard thousands of people that have been discriminated against," Craig said. "So, now I feel like we are also standing for them too."
The case is Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (16-111).
A ruling is expected by June 2018.