It’s Not About Wedding Cakes

What’s all the hype about wedding cakes in recent days? And why will a lawsuit involving a cake maker prove to be the most closely-watched and scrutinized decision the U.S. Supreme Court announces all year? You might even be thinking: Well I like cake and all, but who knew it was that important?

If you hadn’t picked up on it by now, when it comes to cultural battles – and especially the ones played out at the level of the Supreme Court – the issue is almost never really the issue. That is to say, the seemingly small thing over which highly divergent metaphysical universes are colliding is simply the vehicle chosen to carry a more fundamental idea across the goal line. In this latest faceoff, that vehicle is a cake designer and his creation of a custom wedding cake.

While a wedding cake is not exactly a need for human survival, nor something that the average person encounters in his daily life, there is at stake within this cake a very fundamental value, which for one side may be the most fundamental of all: An individual’s right to live according to the dictates of his conscience, informed by his sincerely-held religious beliefs. On the opposite side stands the alleged right to be free from discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” in places of “public accommodation.”

The competing questions could thus be posed: Should a wedding cake artist/designer be forced to create a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony if doing so would violate his deeply-held religious beliefs about the nature of marriage and thereby make him feel complicit in celebrating something he believes dishonors God? And on the other side: Should a person be denied a service by a business, who holds itself out as serving the public, on the basis of that person’s sexual practices and preferences or because they hold a different view about the nature of marriage and wish to celebrate it accordingly? 

Prudent minds should be raising an important question: Can’t Christian cake artists and same-sex couples who want a custom wedding cake peacefully coexist? Is it really too much to ask that each side gets what it wants, and everyone can go home happy?

Yes and no. But it depends on who’s being asked.

It would seem that if Christian cake artists can do business without violating their consciences and same-sex couples can still get their dream wedding cake, then there is really no conflict after all. And if that’s the case, we can all just get on with our lives. The universes need not collide.

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what unraveled here. After Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop declined to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, other local bakeries responded by offering to design a wedding cake for them and give it to them for FREE. My goodness – that sounds like more than a win-win. In the end, the same-sex couple was actually better off. Not only did it become quickly apparent that the couple had plenty of options for willing cake designers, but some even wanted to go above and beyond to bless them in their circumstances.

Jack Phillips, on the other hand, was arguably worse off, since the public backlash against him for his decision not to design the couple’s wedding cake caused his business to lose about 40% of its revenue. But from Jack’s perspective, his commitment to God is more important than money or popularity, and at least he gets to continue to live his life – including running his business – in accordance with his faith.       

But lest we forget, this was never about a wedding cake. The same-sex couple decided to sue Jack anyway, willing even to press their cause all the way to the highest court in the land. For this couple and the many like them who feel vicariously represented, it’s not enough to “live and let live.” It isn’t sufficient that they be able to obtain the services they’re looking for, even if it can’t be from Jack. No, they must ensure that no one ever dares to suggest that their concepts of marriage and sexuality are anything but normal, beautiful and good. Not only must Jack create for them a cake if they want one; he must join with them in celebrating a union anathema to his most deeply-held convictions. And he must serve as an example to all others like him that they had better give up their religious convictions about marriage and sexuality or else be ready to forfeit their business, their reputation, and their livelihood.

That’s what this case is really about.

While the Supreme Court may have recently granted a newfound right for same-sex couples to participate in the union called marriage, it did not (and indeed, cannot) grant to them the ability to deny to others their long-recognized freedoms, like Jack Phillips’ rights to free exercise of religion, speech, and expression in choosing not to design a cake for a religious ceremony. As the saying goes, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Or better yet, “You can’t have your cake and deny others their freedom too.”

Rest assured, this case never was about wedding cakes. At base it’s about whether we as a society will continue to recognize that each person has a supreme duty to God and that the rest of us, therefore, have a corresponding duty to permit them to fulfill it. No less than this determination is at stake when the Supreme Court renders its opinion. As it does so, the Justices would do well to consider the following portion of Article I Section 16 of Virginia’s Bill of Rights:

“That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other. No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”