Phillips was neither asked nor required to attend, let alone participate in, the wedding. Same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Colorado, so Craig and Mullins were to be married in Massachusetts. The cake was for a subsequent reception in Denver. But even if the cake were to have been consumed at a wedding, Phillips’s creation of the cake before the ceremony would not have constituted participation in any meaningful sense.
Six decades ago, the civil rights movement gained momentum through heroic acts of civil disobedience by African Americans whose sit-ins at lunch counters and other challenges to segregation in commerce produced the “public accommodations” section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It established the principle that those who open their doors for business must serve all who enter. That principle would become quite porous were it suspended whenever someone claimed his or her conduct was speech expressing an idea and therefore created a constitutional exemption from a valid and neutral law of general applicability.
It is difficult to formulate a limiting principle that draws a bright line distinguishing essentially expressive conduct from conduct with incidental or negligible expressive possibilities. Nevertheless, it can be easy to identify somethings that clearly are on one side of the line or the other. So, regarding Phillips’s creations:
A cake can be a medium for creativity; hence, in some not-too-expansive sense, it can be food for thought. However, it certainly, and primarily, is food. And the creator’s involvement with it ends when he sends it away to those who consume it. Phillips ought to lose this case. But Craig and Mullins, who sought his punishment, have behaved abominably.
To make his vocation compatible with his convictions and Colorado law, Phillips has stopped making wedding cakes, which was his principal pleasure and 40 percent of his business. He now has only four employees, down from 10. Craig and Mullins, who have caused him serious financial loss and emotional distress, might be feeling virtuous for having done so. But siccing the government on him was nasty.
Denver has many bakers who, not having Phillips’s scruples, would have unhesitatingly supplied the cake they desired. So, it was not necessary for Craig’s and Mullins’s satisfaction as consumers to submit Phillips to government coercion. Evidently, however, it was necessary for their satisfaction as asserters of their rights as a same-sex couple.
Phillips’s obedience to his religious convictions neither expressed animus toward them nor injured them nor seriously inconvenienced them. Their side’s sweeping victory in the struggle over gay rights has been decisive, and now less bullying and more magnanimity from the victors would be seemly.