, , , , , , , , , , ,

A lot rides on the legal interpretation of “expression” in the gay-wedding-cake dispute. Eugene Volokh discusses a recent ruling in California in which a trial court judge ruled that the baker’s right to free expression, buttressed by her right to free exercise of religion, protected her from demands that she participate in a form of expression to which she objected. Specifically, she had no legal obligation to create a cake for the celebration of a gay couple’s wedding, according to the ruling.

The facts in the case, CA Dept. of Fair Employment and Housing v. Cathy’s Creations, are that the baker refused to bake the couple a wedding cake but expressed a willingness to sell them anything that was already available in the shop. Thus, she did not discriminate against the couple by denying them access to her “public accommodations”. She also gave the couple a referral to another baker whom she believed would be willing to produce the cake. So there were probable alternatives available to the couple, and the baker’s assistance in locating one mitigated against any harm suffered by the gay couple. That sort of mitigation is an important factor to consider in weighing the rights of conflicting parties. Courts have tended to view “dignitary harm” as less compelling than forced expression.

Volokh argues that the baker’s role in the episode did not demand expression on her part. He says the proposed cake was a pre-existing design and did not involve writing of any kind. Otherwise, Volokh would have supported the ruling. He and a coauthor discuss the distinctions between an artist (who expresses) and an artisan (who merely executes), and an expressive and a non-expressive cake, in an amicus brief, as noted in the article linked above. Here is Volokh’s summary of his view:

While creating photographs, videos, and text would be constitutionally protected speech (so we support the right of, for instance, photographers not to photograph same-sex weddings), creating wedding cakes with no text or symbolic design on them is not.

The Volokh article is a little confusing because the amicus brief seems to have been filed in a different but similar case, Masterpiece Bakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling is expected this summer. Here is a transcript of the oral arguments in that case, which were heard late last year. It’s a fascinating discussion.

Volokh’s analysis is fine as far as it goes. However, a wedding cake is likely to be considered expressive to both the baker and the cake’s buyers. The baker’s effort in executing even a pre-existing design may involve meaning for her beyond mere execution, since the usual intent of a wedding cake is to celebrate a sacred union. Likewise, the baker knows that the buyers consider the cake to be expressive of their union. The baker doesn’t want any involvement in that expression, asserting that it is not for the government to intercede, forcing them to participate by producing the cake.

Does the baker’s offer to supply an existing cake (or any other bakery good) undermine their case? Does the necessity of baking a new cake for a gay wedding differ from offering a cake already on the shelf for the same purpose? That may be irrelevant to the cases at hand, because no other wedding cakes were available at the time, and freshness might demand the preparation of a new cake for such an occasion. Nevertheless, that sort of line between an acceptable sale for the baker and unacceptable expression strikes me as thin.

As for the matter of the baker’s religious beliefs and their importance to her expressive rights, Volokh derides some of the language of the ruling. Those beliefs, Volokh says, are irrelevant to the question of whether a particular kind of expression is protected or compelled:

By the way, I take it that it’s clear that the Free Speech Clause issue can’t turn on whether Miller’s belief ‘is part of the orthodox doctrines’ of many religions, or whether it’s instead ‘trivial, arbitrary, nonsensical, or outrageous’ — the Free Speech Clause protects views regardless of whether they express views that are seen as orthodox, outrageous, or nonsensical.

Bravo! However, when the rights of two parties are in conflict, it is appropriate to weigh any impingement upon other, secondary rights of both parties.

A disturbing aspect of these cases is that they do not turn in any way on freedom of association, a freedom that encompasses a right not to associate (since any association must be voluntary for both parties). The presumption is that the baker’s right to freely associate or not associate with whomever they please is superseded by their obligations under public accommodation laws, despite the fact that freedom of association is an enumerated right in the U.S. Constitution. While public accommodation laws have generally been found to be constitutional, those laws do not apply in all circumstances, such as when a particular product or service involves expression. But on its own, a violation of the baker’s freedom of association seems to matter less, in today’s legal environment, than abridgment of her free expression, and perhaps less than any obligation she has to provide public accommodation.

Richard Epstein gives a general treatment of the balance between freedom of association and anti-discrimination law. David Henderson has bemoaned the dilution of the freedom of association suffered in the name of non-discrimination. He does not defend discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual preference. Quite the contrary. However, as a matter of individual liberty, he prefers that we retain our right to associate on any basis of our choosing and pay the price imposed by the market for discrimination. For example, if you hang a sign outside your restaurant saying that you won’t serve African Americans, you are likely to suffer a loss of business from all who find your preference offensive, as many will. That solution is obviously unappealing to those who believe that participation in civil society requires public standards of equal access in private transactions. Still, there is some truth to a quote Henderson provides from an anonymous individual comparing the idea of non-discrimination in public accommodations to the “common carrier” designation:

“‘Either way, the theory boils down to “you brought forth a good or service and abracadabra you now have fewer rights”‘”.

The legal actions against the bakers in the cases discussed above rely on anti-discrimination law (in CA, the Unruh Act, and in CO, the Anti-Discrimination Act). Those laws must face limits in their application, as may be necessary in the case of compelled expression, especially expression against one’s most deeply-held convictions, religious or otherwise. The most basic question in this regard is whether the creation of the proposed wedding (or union) cakes can be described as expression. Whether the bakers are acting as mere fabricators or as artists, there is no doubt that the wedding parties desired the cakes as part of the celebration of their unions. That use of a cake constitutes expression on their part, and it is a kind of expression and an association from which the bakers would prefer to demure.

I support the right of homosexuals to enter into legal marriage, but I also support the bakers’ right to refuse the business. To invoke a phrase used by Richard Epstein in the article linked above, the world would be a better place if all agreed to simply “live and let live”.