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Bakeries are at the center of the fight for LGBT rights. Why?

A wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
A wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

A new controversy at a Colorado bakery has once again brought bakers into the center of the debate over LGBT rights and religious freedom.

In 2012, the owner of Colorado bakery Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a cake for a gay couple's wedding reception — prompting a round of legal challenges that have so far ended in the couple's favor.

Now, a new case is putting a twist in the debate. Another baker in Colorado faces a complaint from a customer alleging religious discrimination — for refusing to write anti-gay messages on a cake.

Here's what you need to know about the cases and why these bakeries are part of a much broader battle for LGBT rights.

What's going on in the latest cake case?

lgbt wedding cake

A wedding cake for a gay couple. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images News)

Marjorie Silva, owner of Denver's Azucar Bakery, recently received a notice of a complaint alleging discrimination. She told the Associated Press and KUSA-TV that the complaint stemmed from a customer's visit on March 2014 in which he asked for Bible-shaped cakes. But the customer also asked that Silva inscribe anti-gay messages, such as "God hates gays," onto the cakes and include an image of two men holding hands crossed out by a large X.

Silva reportedly refused to write the messages, although she said she would finish the cakes and provide the customer with icing and a pastry bag so he could write the messages himself.

The customer, who KUSA-TV identified as Bill Jack, filed a complaint to the civil rights division of Colorado's Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA). Jack told KUSA-TV, "I believe I was discriminated against by the bakery based on my creed. As a result, I filed a complaint with the Colorado civil rights division. Out of respect for the process, I will wait for the director to release his findings before making further comments."

DORA is currently reviewing the case, but a decision isn't expected for at least a couple months, according to KUSA-TV.

What happened in the gay wedding cake case?

LGBT wedding cake protesters

Probably the best protest sign of all time. (Kathryn Scott Osler / Denver Post via Getty Images)

In 2012, David Mullins and Charlie Craig went to Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver to order a cake for an upcoming wedding reception. Same-sex marriages weren't allowed in Colorado at the time, so the couple planned to get married in Massachusetts and then celebrate in Colorado.

The Christian owner of the bakery, Jack Phillips, refused to make a wedding cake for the couple, based on his religious opposition to same-sex marriages. In court, Phillips' attorneys argued that making him bake a wedding cake for the same-sex couple would be like forcing a black baker to make a cake with a white supremacist message.

Administrative law judge Robert Spencer disagreed, ruling in favor of the same-sex couple. Colorado's Civil Rights Commission echoed the judge's decision, also ruling that Phillips' religious objections didn't trump the state's anti-discrimination laws. Phillips appealed the rulings to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

What's the difference between the two cases?

lgbt wedding cake

A same-sex wedding cake. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images)

"There's a big difference between refusing service altogether and agreeing to serve someone while refusing to engage in speech that you oppose," Nancy Leong, a law professor at the University of Denver, wrote in an email.

In the most recent case, Silva didn't refuse to serve a customer because the customer was Christian. She actually agreed to serve him — but refused to write a message she disagrees with, which is protected by her free speech rights, according to Leong.

But Phillips allegedly denied service to a gay couple just because of their sexual orientation. The baker prepared wedding cakes for opposite-sex but not same-sex couples, making sexual orientation the distinction between who he does and doesn't serve. That kind of discrimination is prohibited under Colorado law, according to rulings in the case so far.

Critics of the rulings worry that these kinds of arguments and distinctions are blurring the line that defines free speech protections. Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar who's appeared before the US House and Senate to discuss constitutional issues, wrote on his blog, "The question raised by these cases is whether anti-discrimination laws are driving too deeply into free speech rights. Bakers and photographers view themselves as engaged in a form of speech generally. The loss of a bright-line defining free speech has meant that we are finding ourselves increasingly on a slippery slope of speech regulation."

Why are these cake battles in Colorado?

same-sex couple colorado

A gay couple receives a civil union license in 2013. (Marc Piscotty / Getty Images News)

To some degree, it's a coincidence that cases in Colorado are getting so much attention. The state has a non-discrimination law that protects gay and lesbian people from discrimination in public and private places that are open to the general public, such as restaurants and bakeries. But so do more than a dozen other states, from California to Maine.

Leong, who's watched the bakery cases closely, suggested Colorado may be politically predisposed to these types of conflicts: "It's because Denver and Boulder are progressive, and the rest of the state is somewhat-to-very conservative. In particular Colorado Springs is very conservative and religious. We look like a purple state, but it's actually a mosaic of very red and very blue. So there is ample opportunity for this kind of clash of viewpoints."

These types of cases have also popped up in other parts of the country. The New Mexico Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that wedding photographer Elaine Huguenin violated the state's non-discrimination law when she refused to photograph a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony. And in Washington state, a gay couple is suing flower shop Arlene's Flowers for refusing to sell floral arrangements to the couple for their wedding.

Why are bakeries involved in battles for LGBT rights?

lgbt rights protesters

LGBT rights protesters. (Kathryn Scott Osler / Denver Post via Getty Images)

Bakeries have become a flashpoint in the battle for LGBT rights — and legal protections for married or engaged same-sex couples in particular — due to the obvious connection between cakes and weddings. Cakes have been part of weddings since antiquity, going back to the Roman tradition of breaking a cake of wheat or barley over a bride's head for good luck. But traditional wedding cakes require a specific set of skills and tools to make, leaving some couples to the whims of bakers who may oppose gay or lesbian couples' right to marry. When couples finally encountered that opposition within a society more accepting to LGBT rights, the conflict drew national attention.

But these cases aren't just about individual bakeries; they're part of a much broader debate about how LGBT people should be protected in places that are open to and serve the general public. LGBT advocates want legal protections against discrimination in all parts of society — from the restaurant down the street to the county clerk issuing marriage licenses. But opponents believe constitutional protections for religious expression should extend even to forms of expression that discriminate against LGBT people.

Federal and state laws prohibit public accommodations — restaurants, hotels, and most other businesses or buildings open to the general public — from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin. But federal law and most states exclude sexual orientation and gender identity in their protections.

The bakery cases show the possible fallout of how society — and particularly private businesses — will deal with same-sex marriages as they're allowed in more states. Some LGBT advocates expect these types of issues, from discrimination in the workplace to housing to public accommodations, to turn into the next major frontier for civil rights.