Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who successfully fought the Colorado Civil Rights Commission all the way to the Supreme Court last year, is back in federal court again. He's won yet another victory over the commission, which seems determined to force the Christian baker out of business.
What's the background?
Jack Phillips is a Christian baker who runs a specialty bakery in Colorado. Consistent with his religious beliefs, he will not bake a wide variety of cakes, including cakes that have profanity on them, cakes that celebrate divorces, cakes that are infused with alcohol, and cakes that celebrate gay weddings.
Of note: Phillips does not refuse service to gay, lesbian, or transgender customers, as has been commonly asserted in the media. He will bake gay, lesbian, and transgender customers' birthday cakes, or cakes that celebrate any number of occasions; he will not, however, bake cakes that celebrate gay weddings or gender transitions.
Phillips won a major decision in front of the Supreme Court last year that was the culmination of a yearslong legal fight over the Colorado Civil Rights Commission's persecution of Phillips for his refusal to bake cakes for gay weddings.
Writing for the Supreme Court's majority, now retired Justice Anthony Kennedy excoriated the Civil Rights Commission for its "clear and impermissible hostility toward [Phillips'] sincere religious beliefs." The court's decision placed significant emphasis on the anti-religious comments commission members made during the initial consideration of Phillips' case. Many commentators pointed out that Justice Kennedy's decision left open the possibility that if the commission hadn't trashed Phillips' religion in their decision, they might well have survived a First Amendment challenge.
And that is exactly what the commission did. When a transgender customer entered Masterpiece Cakeshop last year and requested a cake celebrating a gender transition, Phillips refused to make the cake. He informed the customer that she was "welcome to purchase any of the cake shop's premade items or obtain a different custom cake," but that he would not fill this particular custom order.
The customer filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission. The commission once again ruled against Phillips, but this time had the good sense to avoid openly criticizing Phillips' religious beliefs in its decision, having been publicly spanked by the Supreme Court for having done so.
Nonetheless, the result for Phillips was the same: the same commission, with the same members, ruled that Phillips' religious beliefs constituted a violation of the transgender customer's civil rights, and fined him. Phillips appealed the commission's ruling, and also filed a federal lawsuit, asking federal courts to stop the state's proceedings against him, and to award him compensatory and punitive damages for the commission's violation of his First Amendment rights.
What happened in this suit?
The commission asked the federal court to dismiss the suit as premature, arguing (based on the doctrine articulated in the Supreme Court decision Younger v. Harris) that Phillips should be required to exhaust all available state remedies before availing himself of federal court. Phillips countered that he should not be required to continue to proceed in state court because the state was proceeding against him in "bad faith," which is a recognized legal exception to Younger abstention.
As evidence of the commission's bad faith, Phillips pointed to the derogatory comments made by commission members during his prior legal fight. The commission countered that this time, they had not disparaged Phillips' religious beliefs and were not proceeding in bad faith.
Unsurprisingly, the district court was not impressed with this argument. Judge Wiley Daniel held that the fact that the commission proceeded against Phillips immediately after losing at the Supreme Court supported Phillips' argument that the commission was acting in bad faith in its handling of his case. Accordingly, the federal case was allowed to move forward.
The commission also argued that the federal court should abstain from deciding the case on three other grounds, each of which was easily brushed aside by the judge as being without merit.
While the judge ruled that Phillips' suit against the commission itself could go forward, the judge did determine that each of the commissioners was individually immune from the suit, and that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper should be dismissed from the suit.
What does Phillips hope to obtain?
Phillips is seeking a permanent injunction preventing the commission from continuing their crusade against him in violation of the First Amendment, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. He also seeks a declaration that the Colorado statute that has been used as the legal basis of the commission's crusade against him is unconstitutional, either facially or as-applied to him.