Arizona lawmakers weigh in on case pitting gay rights, religious rights

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, speaks at the Capitol where scores of lawmakers filed a brief backing his Supreme Court case. He says Colorado’s civil rights laws that require him to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his religiously held principles. (Photo by Adrienne St. Clair/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Three Arizona lawmakers were among the scores of House and Senate members who filed a court brief Thursday defending the Colorado cake shop owner who was sued for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, who said making a wedding cake for two men contradicted his religious beliefs. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission said that violated the state’s law against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and state courts have agreed.

The “friend of the court” brief signed by House and Senate members expresses solidarity with Phillips, who said in his appeal to the Supreme Court that the Colorado’s public accommodation law violates his “sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage.”

Among those signing the brief were Arizona Republican Reps. Trent Franks of Glendale, Paul Gosar of Prescott and Andy Biggs of Gilbert. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich also joined a brief filed by 20 states in support of Phillips.

“The Colorado Court of Appeals failed to apply the legally accepted principles guaranteed in the First Amendment to Mr. Phillips’ case,” Franks said in a statement about the brief. “As the case is reviewed by the Supreme Court, my colleagues and I want to ensure that the Supreme Court is aware that the First Amendment affords this Colorado baker inalienable rights and protections.”

But a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona disagreed, saying that while Phillips is free to his religious beliefs and free to oppose same-sex couples, “what he’s not free to do is deny a business service that he provides to everyone else solely to one category of people.” The ACLU of Colorado is representing the same-sex couple in the case.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case is just one of several around the country that deal with the conflict between traditional religious beliefs and newfound rights for same-sex couples to marry in the United States.

One of those cases is in Arizona, where the owners of Brush and Nib Studio, which specializes in hand-lettering and calligraphy, sued the city of Phoenix for its ordinance that required the business to provide products for same-sex marriages.

That studio is being represented by Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which is also representing Phillips and other business owners in similar cases.

Alliance attorney Kristen Waggoner, who is lead counsel in the Masterpiece Cakeshop appeal to the Supreme Court, said the case “transcends the marriage issue, it transcends Colorado.”

“It applies to all Americans … everyone’s right to be able to express ideas and to create messages and to celebrate religious ceremonies that are consistent with their convictions, including people in Arizona,” she said at a news conference at the Capitol where lawmakers unveiled their friend of the court brief.

Phillips said after the event that his case “goes right to the heart of what Americans cherish.”

The case began in July 2012, when Charlie Craig and David Mullins were making plans for their upcoming wedding in Massachusetts – same-sex marriage was not legal in Colorado at that time. The two men came to Phillips’ Lakewood, Colorado, shop and asked for a cake for a post-wedding party they planned in Colorado.

Phillips refused, citing his religious beliefs, but offered to sell them any other baked goods in the store, according to court documents.

The men left the store, but later filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, claiming that Phillips’ refusal violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The civil rights commission agreed, a decision that was upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals.

“I opened the cake shop so I could use the artistic talents and gifts that God has given me in order to combine those with my love of baking,” Phillips said Thursday. “The state of Colorado determined that I am not going to be able to live by my faith and my conscience.”

But Arizona ACLU communications director Steve Kilar disagreed.

“The fact of the matter is, this doesn’t have anything to do with what he believes or what he has to say,” he said. “He is free to continue to have his religious beliefs, he is free to continue to speak out against same-sex couples, but what he’s not free to do is deny a business service that he provides to everyone else solely to one category of people.”

Kilar is concerned that Phillips’ appeal in the Supreme Court “has the possibility to bring down the longstanding history we have of civil rights protections, that people can go into commercial businesses and have the expectation that they will be treated with dignity and respect.”

He said cases like Masterpiece and Brush and Nib make “essentially the same arguments.”

“This isn’t just about cakes and it’s not just about gay people,” Kilar said, but about the fundamental rights of all Americans.

That was one argument where he and Waggoner agreed.

Those fundamental rights are at the heart of Franks’ support, the congressman said.

“This becomes a scary world when the state is authorized to regulate free expression,” his statement said.

The Supreme Court, which reconvenes in October, has not yet set a date for arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

-Cronkite News videos by Fraser Allan Best