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Court limits Jack Phillips’ religious bias lawsuit

DENVER (BP) — Christian cake artist Jack Phillips can proceed with his latest lawsuit alleging Colorado harassed him based on his religious beliefs, but he may no longer seek damages from nine of the 10 defendants targeted.

Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, has legal standing to challenge Colorado’s discrimination law, the U.S. District Court for Colorado ruled Jan. 4 regarding a motion to dismiss the 2018 case. But most defendants successfully blocked Phillips’ pursuit of compensatory, punitive and nominal damages against them as government officials and individual citizens.

Only Colorado Atty. Gen. Cynthia H. Coffman remains an individual defendant in the case, having lost her appeal to block Phillips from pursuing equitable relief against her in her official governmental capacity.

“Because the Attorney General represents the Commission in proceedings to enforce” Colorado’s statute, Senior Judge Wiley Y. Daniel wrote, “and Phillips claims this enforcement is currently violating his constitutional rights, Attorney General Coffman is a proper defendant.”

Colorado Civil Rights Division Director Aubrey Elenis, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and the entire seven-member Colorado Civil Rights Commission won their motion to have the case against them dismissed, proclaiming immunity under the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In the district court ruling, Daniel acknowledges Phillips’ Christianity and the fact that the state law limits Phillips’ operation of his business. Because of the law, Phillips may not post on his business website a statement explaining that he refuses to bake items that violate his religious beliefs and free speech.

Phillips’ attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom praised the district court’s ruling to allow the case to continue, despite the limitations.

“We look forward to moving forward with this lawsuit to ensure that Jack isn’t forced to create custom cakes that express messages in conflict with his faith,” ADF Senior Counsel Jim Campbell said in a Jan. 7 press release. “Colorado is acting in bad faith and with bias toward Jack.”

The latest case, Phillips v. Elenis, is the cake baker’s second legal battle against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Phillips filed the lawsuit in August 2018 after the state said he discriminated against a citizen who wanted to celebrate her gender transition with a blue and pink cake.

The latest lawsuit follows a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Phillips’ favor regarding Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The commission exhibited “clear and impermissible hostility” toward Phillips’ religious beliefs in finding him guilty of discrimination in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled.

The district court ruling acknowledges Phillips’ use of his Christianity in business practices.

“Phillips is not only a cake artist, but a Christian. His faith teaches him ‘whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” Daniel wrote, referencing 1 Corinthians 10:31. “According to this teaching, and other instructions from the New Testament, Phillips operates Masterpiece as an extension of his religious convictions…. Phillips’ faith informs what he will and will not do.”

Because of the state law, Daniel said, Phillips is not able to clarify on his website that “Masterpiece Cakeshop serves all people — no matter who they are or what protected characteristics they have…. But because our religious beliefs guide us in all parts of our lives, we cannot create custom cakes that express messages or celebrate events in conflict with our faith. For example, because of our belief in the teachings of the Bible and our reliance on those teachings as the only source of ultimate truth, we cannot create custom cakes that through words, designs, symbols, themes, or images express messages that … celebrate gender transitions” and other events.

Maureen Collins, an ADF web writer, said the latest case hopefully will settle the issue for Phillips.

“Hopefully this lawsuit will mark the end of Colorado’s bullying of Jack,” Collins blogged Dec. 17. “He deserves to see a day when he can freely live out his faith without fear of government punishment. After all, that is the God-given right of every person, no matter who they are or what they believe.”