By MARK SHERMAN
WASHINGTON — His vote likely to decide the outcome, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy voiced competing concerns Tuesday about respecting the religious beliefs of a Colorado baker who wouldn’t make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, and the gay couple’s dignity.
Kennedy, the author of all the court’s major gay-rights decisions, worried early in a riveting argument at the high court that a ruling in favor of baker Jack Phillips might allow shop owners to put up signs saying “We do not bake cakes for gay weddings.”
But later, Kennedy said the Colorado Civil Rights Commission seemed “neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs” when it found his refusal to bake a cake for the gay couple violated the state’s anti-discrimination law.
Phillips and the couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, were all in the courtroom Tuesday to listen to an argument that otherwise seemed to put the conservative justices squarely with Phillips and the liberals on the couple’s side.
The case pits Phillips’ First Amendment claims of artistic freedom against the anti-discrimination arguments of the Colorado commission, and the two men Phillips turned away in 2012.
The argument was the first involving gay rights since the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that states could not prevent same-sex couples from marrying.
The Trump administration is supporting Phillips in his argument that he can’t be forced to create a cake that violates his religious beliefs. It appears to be the first time the federal government has asked the justices to carve out an exception from an anti-discrimination law.
The liberal justices peppered Kristen Waggoner, Phillips’ lawyer, and Solicitor General Noel Francisco, with questions about how to draw a line to accommodate Phillips without eviscerating laws that require businesses that are open to the public to serve all customers.
The case’s outcome could affect photographers and florists who have voiced objections similar to those of Phillips.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan ticked off other categories of people who are involved in weddings to ask if they too might be able to refuse a same-sex couple. A graphic artist who designs menus and invitations? A jeweler? A hair stylist? A makeup artist?
Waggoner said the person who makes menus and invitations might be in the same position as Phillips, but not the others because what they do is “not speech.”
Kagan replied: “Some people might say that about cakes, you know?”
More generally, Justice Stephen Breyer in an exchange with Francisco said his concern is the court would have “no way of confining” a decision in favor of Phillips.
Kennedy’s comments in the first half of the 75-minute argument seemed firmly in line with the concerns for human dignity that Kennedy expressed in his opinion in the 2015 gay marriage case and other gay-rights decisions he has written over more than 20 years. Kennedy expressed his doubts when Francisco tried to describe a narrow range of situations in which Phillips and similarly situated business owners might have a right to refuse service.
“The problem for you is so many examples do involve speech. It basically means there is an ability to boycott,” Kennedy said.