Another incident has surfaced that can be added to the category of food service providers who do not fully support gay equality. Masterpiece Cake Shop of Lakewood, Colorado recently refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Shop owner Jack Phillips explained that he has no prejudice towards “gay people … [or] their lifestyle,” but his actions will likely be deemed discriminatory if the issue ever made it to court. Putting aside the various opinions on marriage equality for a moment, the chief issue at hand concerns a business owner’s right to refuse service versus his obligated compliance with sanctioned anti-discrimination policies. I find that Phillips is perfectly entitled to his own personal opinion, but his actions in this case are legally discriminatory and unjust.
Stephanie Rabiner of Findlaw explains how businesses are places of public accommodation, thus subjecting them to federal and state anti-discrimination laws. If Masterpiece Cake Shop were a private and exclusive locale, then Phillips would most likely have been permitted to refuse service to the couple in question, Dave Mullin and Charlie Craig. Seeing as how the shop is not strictly private, Phillips would not reasonably be able to defend his position in court. I find this especially to be true since Phillips admits that he makes cakes for gay clientele when it comes to birthdays, graduations, or other occasions, just not weddings, indicating how this one exception is highly subjective and motivated by ideological difference and disagreement rather than a direct obstruction caused by the couple.
As Rabiner further describes, courts typically do not uphold “arbitrary discrimination.” Refusal of service is often permissible when a potential client is doing something heinously indecent or improper to the point that it could affect the shop’s transactional practices. (To view a list of commonly accepted reasons to refuse service, click here.) To reiterate, Phillips turned Mullin and Craig away due to personal disagreement as opposed to a response of blatant misconduct by the couple. Although it is unclear at this point if legal action will be taken, considering the fact that Colorado also has its own anti-discrimination policies in place which include sexual orientation protections, it is foreseeable that Phillips would not stand a chance in court.
The response to this issue so far includes public protests and boycotts of the business. One of the protesters, Cate Owens, explains that she “supports local business,” and hopes that the shop will change its policies. The group does not want to “shut [the store] down.” Hopefully the debate and actions that arise from this debacle will lead to greater protection of queer individuals who patronize public accommodations. It may not be in the best interest of the shop keeper per se, but enforcement of equal rights and protection is important for society overall, and a key tool to furthering acceptance. Being a business-owner in this country comes with strings attached, and Phillips will be yanked by his if he does not separate his personal beliefs from his professional responsibilities.