National News

Colorado, Once Called the ‘Hate State,’ Grapples With Cake Baker Decision

Posted June 5, 2018 10:47 p.m. EDT

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — The pilgrims arrived early to the cake shop on Tuesday, toting cameras and American flags and hoping for a glimpse of the man who had elevated a cause they cared about: the right for religious people to speak their minds.

But Jack Phillips, the Christian baker who had refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple — and who had just won a major Supreme Court case — was nowhere to be found. “Had to fly N.Y.,” read a sign on the locked door. “Thank you for all your support!”

And so the cake baker’s fans were left to celebrate on their own. There were balloons and Bible verses, and also misgivings: In a nation that has moved so far in the direction of gay rights in recent years, it was not clear if Phillips’ victory would mean much for long.

“It’s a win for freedom,” said Ray Lapsys, 74, a Catholic. His wife doubted it would last. “We’re praying for that very strongly,” said Raminta Lapsys, 66. “But I don’t think so. Satan is strong, and the devil is out there.”

Six years ago, David Mullins and Charlie Craig went to Phillips’ bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop, hoping to order a cake for their wedding. Phillips refused to make them a cake, citing his religious objection to same-sex marriage. Soon, Masterpiece Cakeshop, tucked in a quiet strip mall in a Denver suburb, became the center of a bitter culture war and a case that reached the Supreme Court.

But that was 2012. In the years since, the state of Colorado and then the Supreme Court have thrown their support behind same-sex marriage. Civic institutions across the country have come to embrace gay families, often granting them the same treatment as other families.

And Colorado — labeled by critics as the “hate state” in 1992 when voters approved an initiative that barred protected status for sexual orientation — could elect its first openly gay governor this year.

Jared Polis, a gay congressman, is among the leading candidates in a governor race that will define the future of this fast-growing state.

“When I first ran for Congress in 2008,” Polis said, “we had a whole wall of homophobic hate mail that people had sent.”

Now, he said, “it’s not really an issue,” and people want to vote for the candidate “who is going to do something about traffic.”

On Monday, when the Supreme Court justices handed down their decision in the cake case, they kept it narrow, ruling in favor of Phillips on the grounds that the state’s Civil Rights Commission, which originally ruled against him, had acted hostile toward religion.

The court’s decision seemed to apply only to the case at hand, and left open the question of whether a business can refuse gay customers by invoking their First Amendment rights.

Phillips, in an email between East Coast news interviews, said he had lost 40 percent of his business in recent years, because litigation prevented him from making wedding cakes for anyone, gay or straight.

This meant he had to fire six of his 10 employees, he said, and the Civil Rights Commission also ordered him to re-educate “my 89-year-old mother, my wife and my daughter, by teaching them that I was wrong to run my business consistent with my faith.”

He disagreed with the notion that the ruling would not have larger implications.

“The court recognized,” he said, “that the government was wrong to punish me for living out my beliefs about marriage. That is significant.”

In many ways, Colorado is a fitting scene for the tug of war between claims of religious freedom and civil rights for gay Americans.

It is a purple state that both legalized marijuana and is home to Focus on the Family, an influential conservative organization based in Colorado Springs.

The state has moved left in recent years. But its identity still hangs in balance. Jefferson County, which includes Lakewood and the Masterpiece Cakeshop, is among the most politically divided counties in the state. Hillary Clinton won here in 2016 by a slim margin.

On Tuesday, white cake boxes lined the walls of the locked shop, visible through a window, along with a handwritten sign propped on a table. “When I understand that everything happening to me is to make me more Christ-like,” it read, “it resolves a great deal of anxiety.”

Ray and Raminta Lapsys, standing on the sidewalk, said they identified strongly with Phillips. They had come by on Tuesday to celebrate him — and to purchase Ray a cake for his 75th birthday.

The Lapsyses are active in their Catholic church. They believe that same-sex marriage is not sanctioned by God. Their parents fled communism, leading them to see government mandates — like one ordering a religious man to bake a cake for an event he opposes — as a sign of an iron-fisted regime.

The Lapsys are also glass engravers, and are aware that the day may come when their religious beliefs force them to turn away a gay couple.

“I think the movement is a good thing,” said Ray Lapsys of gay rights, “the bad thing is that they’ve forced us to go with the movement.”

But they were not the only ones there on Tuesday.

Paul Olgin, 33, a teacher, had come by with his wife and son. Olgin said he disagreed with the baker’s decision, and he compared it to that of a man who refuses to bake for interracial couples.

“People deserve religious freedoms, but there’s boundaries,” he said.

Olgin also called the Supreme Court ruling “a little bit of a speed bump,” for gay rights. “Overall,” he said, “the momentum is with the left.”