How Battles Over Serving Same-Sex Couples Play Out in Court

Cakes. Flowers. Wedding invitations.

They are at the center of a long-running clash over same-sex marriage rights, religious freedom and discrimination.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the former owners of Sweetcakes by Melissa, a bakery in Oregon that refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple in 2012. Instead, the case will be returned to lower courts in the state for further review.

[The court’s move left unresolved the question of whether businesses may discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds.]

It is one of a number of cases in the last decade in which bakers, florists and invitation designers have said that performing services for the weddings of same-sex couples violates their right to free speech and freedom of religion. The couples say they are being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation when they are refused those services.

Here’s a brief look at some of the most prominent cases.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. The scope of the ruling was limited, though, and did not address questions about discrimination and religious freedom.

The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, was the result of a 2012 incident when the couple visited Jack Phillips’s bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop, in Lakewood, Colo. The two men, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, were to be married in Massachusetts, and wanted a cake for a reception they were hosting in Colorado.

Mr. Phillips, a Christian who opposes same-sex marriage, turned them down, telling the couple that he would be betraying his religious beliefs if he made the cake. Upset by Mr. Phillips’s refusal, Mr. Mullins and Mr. Craig filed a complaint with Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission, claiming the baker had violated a state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Phillips’s favor. The majority based its opinion on the argument that the Colorado commission, which had ruled against Mr. Phillips, had been antagonistic toward Mr. Phillips’s religious argument. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that the commission’s members had acted with “clear and impermissible hostility” to people with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of a bakery in October 2018 that had refused to make a cake bearing the slogan “Support Gay Marriage,” saying the refusal was not discriminatory. The court’s decision makes it easier for businesses in Britain to decline customer requests that are at odds with their beliefs.

The dispute began in 2014, when Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist in Northern Ireland, sought to buy a cake for a party from Ashers Baking Company in Belfast that showed two “Sesame Street” characters, Bert and Ernie; a logo for his group, QueerSpace; and the slogan supporting gay marriage. The bakery initially accepted Mr. Lee’s order and payment, but days later Karen McArthur, one of the bakery’s directors, declined the request.

She said at the time that making the cake was inconsistent with her Christian beliefs. Mr. Lee sued the bakery and, in 2016, an appeals court in Belfast ruled in his favor. “The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either,” Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan wrote.

The bakery challenged that ruling. It was overturned by Britain’s Supreme Court.


In 2013, Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of a flower shop in the small city of Richland, in southeastern Washington, refused to create floral arrangements for a gay couple’s wedding.

The two grooms, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, had previously bought flowers at her store, Arlene’s Flowers. But she declined to provide arrangements for their wedding. She told them that her Christian faith defined marriage as existing exclusively between a man and a woman, and that her right to artistic expression was being violated.

Four years later, the high court in Washington state ruled unanimously that she could not claim religious belief as a legal defense under the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The case involving Arlene’s Flowers, the court said in a 59-page decision, “is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.” A lawyer for the florist said they would seek to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court.

Last June, however, the Supreme Court asked the court in Washington state to revisit the case in light of the decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. No decision has been announced.


The Arizona Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in January after two Christian invitation designers said they would refuse to create wedding invitations for same-sex couples if asked.

Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, evangelical Christians and the owners of Brush & Nib Studio, sued the city of Phoenix in 2016, saying they feared legal retribution if they did not fulfill requests from gay or lesbian couples. The city has an ordinance that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a national conservative legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that is representing Brush & Nib, argued that the ordinance violated the two women’s rights to free speech and religion. The Arizona Republic reported at the time that the women had no complaints filed against them. The duo, who create handmade artwork for weddings and other events, contended that creating invitations for gay or lesbian couples would be tantamount to endorsing same-sex marriage.

So far, Ms. Duka and Ms. Koski have lost in Maricopa County Superior Court and the Arizona Court of Appeals, and the Phoenix ordinance remains in effect. The state’s Supreme Court is expected to make a decision in the case soon.

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