Not even his high-profile 2018 victory at the Supreme Court could halt the legal saga of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips.
The Christian dessert maker was back in court this week to fight a civil lawsuit over his refusal to create a cake celebrating a gender transition, a case described by his legal team as a “setup” aimed at ensnaring Colorado’s best-known cake maker.
“This week, we saw what represents a disturbing trend: the use of the justice system to ruin people who want to live and work according to their beliefs,” Mr. Phillips said in an email. “In this case, a custom cake request was made to ‘test’ me and ‘correct the errors’ of my thinking. No one should be forced to create expression or speak a message that violates their conscience.”
The three-day trial in Denver District Court wrapped up Wednesday, leaving Mr. Phillips and Autumn Scardina, the Denver lawyer who sued him, to await a ruling by Judge A. Bruce Jones in a case that could bring the baker back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawsuit represents the latest installment in a nine-year legal odyssey that began when Mr. Phillips declined in 2012 to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, a case he won six years later at the Supreme Court.
That is where Ms. Scardina comes in. In June 2017, on the same day the high court agreed to hear the case, she called the Lakewood bakery and asked for a blue-and-pink, male-to-female transition cake to celebrate her birthday. The bakery declined.
She submitted a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, but the panel dropped the matter in March 2019 after Mr. Phillips sued the state for harassment. Three months later, Ms. Scardina filed a civil lawsuit accusing Mr. Phillips of violating the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act.
During the trial, Ms. Scardina said she knew her cake request would likely be rejected, but “it still stunned and stung — how very sort of debasing it is to have somebody say, ‘No, your kind doesn’t get service.’”
“[T]o be seen as a less-than customer, to be seen as an undeserving human is very upsetting,” she said, as shown on the transcript of the trial, which was held remotely.
Ms. Scardina also admitted that she also asked Masterpiece for a cake depicting Satan smoking a joint, which the bakery declined, and sent Mr. Phillips an email in August 2012 calling him a bigot, although she said she later apologized.
“I want to believe that he’s a good person. I want to believe that he could be, sort of, persuaded to the errors of his thinking,” she said.
Asked by Phillips attorney Sean Gates whether she was “hopeful that you could correct Mr. Phillips’ errors of thinking,” Ms. Scardina replied, “I think, in part, yes.” As for whether the cake request was a setup, she said it was “more of a calling of somebody’s bluff.”
Mr. Phillips has long argued that he serves all customers but won’t make products that convey messages with which he disagrees, including Halloween and anti-LGBTQ cakes. Ms. Scardina countered that there was nothing offensive about the request for a blue-and-pink cake.
“If he offers custom cakes to the community, he must offer custom cakes to the entire community,” she said. “And he doesn’t get to pick and choose based on perceived characteristics of members of the community.”
In Masterpiece’s corner was Mike Jones, an openly gay customer who said Mr. Phillips, his wife and daughter have always treated him with “respect and good customer service” and that “there are times I feel like I’m part of the family.”
No matter the judge’s ruling, the case is likely to be appealed, meaning Mr. Phillips could wind up once again at the Supreme Court.
In the first Masterpiece case, the high court ruled in favor of Masterpiece based on the anti-religious hostility and bias displayed by Colorado commissioners, a narrow ruling that failed to resolve the debate on whether he could refuse custom cake orders based on their messages.
Jonathan Scruggs, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel and Phillips attorney, said the “endgame is, agree with me and support my views on human sexuality, or we’re going to shut you down.”
“These laws that Jack has been sued under numerous times are really being used as a sword to target people,” he said.
Even after the appeals are exhausted, another case could quickly take its place. Ms. Scardina said she indicated during mediation that she would request another cake and file another lawsuit if the court rulings fail to address “the fundamental disagreement.”
“I believe that it’s very, very important that Mr. Phillips understand he does not have the ability to discriminate against members of the LGBT community in the goods and services that he provides,” she said at the trial.
Her hand could strengthen if Congress approves the Equality Act, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and exempts itself from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
President Biden has said he will sign the bill, which is now before the Senate after passing the House last month on a 224-206 vote, with three Republicans joining all Democrats.
“What you face with the Equality Act is doing this situation on repeat nationwide,” said Mr. Scruggs. “We’re filing lawsuits across the country now to support the right of people to control what messages they say on behalf of photographers, calligraphers, filmmakers, and we’ve won those lawsuits so far.”
Both parties say the trial has taken a financial toll. Ms. Scardina said her business has suffered, and Mr. Phillips has reduced his staff from 10 to two full-time employees since his legal saga began in 2012.
The idea, said Mr. Scruggs, is “to ruin Jack Phillips and punish him because of what he believes.”
“It’s really a systematic harassment campaign targeting him because people disagree with his religious beliefs,” said Mr. Scruggs. “That should be scary to all Americans. In effect, this attorney is trying to use the court system as an arm of cancel culture, to cancel Jack Phillips.”