KEVIN LEININGER: Faith, tolerance coexist at Fort Wayne bakery, but with limits that illustrate the church-state challenge ahead

Christine Miller has decorated wedding cakes for gay customers, but there are things the Waynedale Bakery might not make -- unless the government gets involved. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Jack Phillips (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

A crucifix hangs on the wall at Waynedale Bakery, a visible testament to the Catholic faith of cake decorator and manager Christine Miller. But where a business owner’s religious freedom and public accommodation collide, don’t make too many assumptions on the basis of that icon. Her feelings about last week’s Supreme Court decision in favor of a Colorado man who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding are more complicated than that — just like the issue itself.

“I don’t want government to tell me what to do, but we’re in business to serve people. I have gay customers, and when they asked whether I would make a cake for their wedding I said, ‘Sure.’ I don’t think we should be the judge; God should be. We all have to answer to him,” said Miller, who has operated the bakery at 2610 Lower Huntington Road for the past 17 years.

Jack Phillips, owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop near Denver, responded much differently in 2012 when David Mullins and Charlie Craig asked him to design a custom cake for their wedding. Phillips declined, citing his Christian belief that marriage is an institution between a man and woman. The couple filed a complaint and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled in their favor, but the Supreme Court overturned the decision by a 7-2 vote that did little to clarify when, or whether, business owners can refuse service on the basis of their religious beliefs. In fact, had the Colorado commission not been so openly hostile to religion — it “disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable . . . and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust,” the court noted — the outcome may have been different.

Phillips’ refusal to decorate a cake was not, a contemporary example of Jim Crow-era denial of services to blacks. Phillips served gays; he simply did not want to violate his conscience by lending his creative skills to an activity inconsistent with his faith. Nor did his morality single gays out: He had also refused to make cakes for divorces or decorations containing racist, atheist or un-American messages, bachelor-party images or Halloween themes.

Which brings us back to Waynedale, where ecumenism apparently has its limits despite the bakery’s production of cakes for same-sex weddings and “the best challah bread in town” for a local synagogue. Miller said she would think twice before decorating an “adult” cake, while her father and bookkeeper Harold Clinger said he’d draw the line at frosting in the shape of a swastika.

Therein lurks a recipe for chaos. If Phillips can be compelled to decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding, Miller and Clinger can be forced to bake phallus-shaped cupcakes or cater Nazi birthday parties even though they consider such things offensive or downright evil. The Supreme Court raised that very possibility when it chastised the Colorado commission for endorsing “the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain.” If the government is going to prevent Americans from living their faith outside the walls of their place of worship, the First Amendment is worse than meaningless.

But the commission’s concerns, however hostile their intent or phasing, were not entirely off base. Religion has indeed been used to skirt legitimate laws or justify reprehensible behavior, and the same First Amendment that guarantees Americans the right to believe as they please also legitimately limits the government’s ability to decide which creeds are acceptable and which are not. Even Solomon would be hard-pressed to discern where legitimate religious expression ends and the government’s lawful obligations begin.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested a good starting point for that debate late last year during oral arguments in the Phillips vase. Tolerance, he said, “is essential in a free society” — but needs to work both ways. Isn’t America big enough to accommodate both Phillips and Miller? Agree with her decision or not, that’s how Miller is trying to treat others, and expects to be treated in return. Anything less would be, well, half-baked.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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