A California judge ruled last week to protect the First Amendment rights of a Christian baker who refused to bake a cake celebrating the wedding of a same-sex couple.
The case, Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Tastries Bakery, followed the state’s suit on behalf of a lesbian couple against Cathy Miller — a Bakersfield native who owns and operates Tastries Bakery, which sells customized baked goods and cakes.
Miller, a devout Christian, was represented in state court by Catholic legal group Thomas More Society after Eileen Rodriguez-Del Rio and Mireya Rodriguez-Del Rio sued her for refusing to bake a cake celebrating their union.
Miller targeted by state under anti-discrimination law
According to a press release from the Thomas More Society, Miller was approached by a lesbian couple in August 2017 after they asked her to design a custom cake for their wedding.
When Miller declined to bake the cake, she referred the couple to another bakery. Instead of taking their business there, the couple “blasted their encounter on social media, characterizing it as discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
The couple then filed a complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), a state agency that enforces anti-discrimination law.
The DFEH immediately investigated Miller and filed a petition asking the Superior Court for a preliminary injunction to force Tastries Bakery to either make wedding cakes for same-sex couples or not make wedding cakes at all.
“Stunned, offended, and hurt, the Rodriguez-Del Rio party left Tastries to cope with the indignity of being denied service solely because of their sexual orientation,” the petition stated.
But a California state court judge ruled against the petition in February 2018 on the grounds of protecting her First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and speech.
“The State asks this court to compel Miller to use her talents to design and create a cake she has not yet conceived with the knowledge that her work will be displayed in celebration of a marital union her religion forbids,” the judge wrote.
“For this court to force such compliance would do violence to the essentials of Free Speech guaranteed under the First Amendment,” the ruling said.
In October 2018 the DFEH sued Miller and Tastries Bakery, arguing that she violated the law by refusing service on the basis of sexual orientation on the basis of the California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.
California’s Unruh Act “provides protection from discrimination by all business establishments in California, including housing and public accommodations, because of age, ancestry, color, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation.”
Paul Jonna, special counsel at the Thomas More Society, told CNA that the group was surprised the state took it that far after the Superior Court struck down the injunction.
“We kind of thought that the state would see the writing on the wall and drop the case back then. Unfortunately, they didn’t; they filed a new action, aggressively litigating it for several years,” Jonna said.
Miller’s religious practices protected by First Amendment
In July of this year, lawyers from the Thomas More Society represented Miller before the state court, arguing that the First Amendment protected Miller’s rights to free speech and exercise of religion in her business practices.
Miller has had a long-standing policy for refusing to bake cakes that violate her Christian beliefs, which are listed in her employee handbook. This includes her refusal to make cakes promoting marijuana or obscene sexual images, for example.
“She wasn’t making distinctions based on sexual orientation, she was making distinctions based on messages that violate her sincere faith,” Jonna said.
Jonna noted that Miller “had no problem” serving people on the basis of sexual orientation.
“It’s the message celebrating same sex marriage that she objected to,” he said.
The state court found that not only did Miller not discriminate but also that her business practices of not creating cakes celebrating same-sex marriage was “protected speech,” Jonna explained.
On Oct. 21, the state court ruled yet again in favor of Miller, finding that the DFEH “failed to prove that [she] intentionally discriminated against Eileen and Mireya because of their sexual orientation.”
The ruling also states that “Miller’s only intent, her only motivation, was fidelity to her sincere Christian beliefs” in the sanctity of marriage.
“It concludes not only that Cathy didn’t violate the Unruh Act, but also that the First Amendment protected her anyway,” Jonna said.
While Jonna says the lesbian couple is expected to appeal the case, he says it bodes well for those facing similar circumstances in the state.
“Of course, we give all credit and honor and glory to God,” Jonna said. “But we do think that we had a pretty good team of lawyers and a good judge.”
Jonna recalled that the Thomas More Society won in cases against California Gov. Gavin Newsom three times when he closed churches in the state.
“There’s so much going on by the state that is so egregious and so obviously unlawful, that all it takes is people willing to come forward and a good public interest law firm like Thomas More Society willing to take on the case,” Jonna said.
“But these are winnable cases,” Jonna added. “And I think that’s an important message for people to know, even in California.”