Friday, October 7, 2022
Oct. 7, 2022

Linkedin Pinterest

Milbank: The Supreme Court cake case has an easy answer


There will come a time, hopefully before long, when it won’t be legal to discriminate against gay people any more than it would be to deny goods or services to African-Americans, women or the disabled. But we’re not at that point yet. Hence the need for Tuesday’s food fight at the Supreme Court.

On the justices’ plates: whether a baker can refuse on First Amendment grounds to make a cake for a gay wedding because it offends his Christian beliefs. Layered throughout the argument: Is food speech? Or is it, well, food?

Kristen Waggoner, arguing for Masterpiece Cakeshop of Colorado, made the creative argument that the Christian confectioner “intended to speak through that cake” and that when the cake maker bakes, “he is creating a painting on that canvas that expresses messages” — and is therefore covered by the First Amendment.

Trump administration Solicitor General Noel Francisco, also arguing for the cake maker, said that the first question was whether “the cake rises to the level of speech.” He gave no indication that his pun was intended.

To the casual consumer, it’s obvious that cake does not rise to the level of protected speech. Cake is dessert. Or possibly breakfast, if in muffin form. But for a Supreme Court that has determined that corporations are people, it is not settled law that cake is food.

This raises the possibility of other goods and services being denied to gay people by those who cite their free-speech and free-expression-of-religion rights — just as Jim Crow merchants did when refusing to serve African-Americans a half-century ago.

“The person who does floral arranging,” asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Would that person also be speaking at the wedding?”

Yes, Waggoner answered, “if they are custom-designed arrangements.”

Justice Elena Kagan decided to play. “The jeweler?”

Possibly, Waggoner reasoned.


“Absolutely not.”

“The makeup artist?” Kagan persisted.

Waggoner said that the makeup artist would not be speaking — neither, she replied to Kagan’s further questions, would the wedding tailor or the chef.

“Whoa!” Kagan pounced. “The baker is engaged in speech, but the chef is not engaged in speech?”

And let’s not even get into the butcher and the candlestick maker.

The case could go either way, with four justices apparently on the cake-is-speech side, four on the cake-is-food side and Anthony M. Kennedy in between. But Kennedy did tell Francisco that his side in the case has a “problem,” because “there’s basically an ability to boycott gay marriages.”

Answer is a piece of cake

Lawyers for the cake baker argued that discrimination on the basis of race or disability is different because it is based on “who the person is” — as if being gay isn’t who the person is.

The high court has enshrined the right to same-sex marriage, but neither the court nor Congress has protected sexual orientation the way they protect race, religion, gender and disability. Hence the slippery-slope questions.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked about architects.

“Generally that would not be protected,” Waggoner ventured.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer interjected. “So,” he said, “Mies or Michelangelo or someone is not protected when he creates the Laurentian Steps, but this cake baker is protected when he creates the cake without any message on it for a wedding?”

This is important, Breyer said, because “we want some kind of distinction that will not undermine every civil rights law from the year to — including the African-Americans, including the Hispanic Americans, including everybody who has been discriminated against in very basic things of life, food, design of furniture, homes and buildings.”

Piece of cake: If you can’t do it to racial and religious minorities, women and the disabled, you shouldn’t be able to do it to gay people.

Support local journalism

Your tax-deductible donation to The Columbian’s Community Funded Journalism program will contribute to better local reporting on key issues, including homelessness, housing, transportation and the environment. Reporters will focus on narrative, investigative and data-driven storytelling.

Local journalism needs your help. It’s an essential part of a healthy community and a healthy democracy.

Community Funded Journalism logo