Wedding cake with gay couple
Photo: Ivonne Wierink

Brotherly love gave rise to Madison bakery owner Lindsey Lee’s decision to sign his name to a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Commitment to equality — in keeping with Wisconsin’s progressive tradition — also was folded into Lee’s decision to sign the “Chefs Equality Brief” filed on behalf of a gay couple in Colorado who alleged discrimination after a baker refused their order for a wedding cake.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is scheduled for oral argument Dec. 5.

“It’s the civil rights issue of our era,” said Lee, who operates three Cargo Coffee shops in Madison with his twin brother Lynn, who is gay.

Friends of the court

The stakes in this case are so high that about 100 amicus or friend-of-the-court briefs were filed by the end of October.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., led one brief signed by 35 senators and 175 House members.

“Our religious beliefs don’t entitle any of us to discriminate against others,” Baldwin said. “It is simply wrong to discriminate against any American based on who they are or who they love. If an individual has the ability to pay for a service and is not in violation of the law, they should not be turned away.”

Other briefs were submitted by medical groups, labor unions, business alliances, civil-rights coalitions, bar associations, scholars, mayors, faith leaders and more.

Lee was encouraged by Wisconsin political organizer Mike Tate — former chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party — to sign the Chefs Equality Brief, which was prepared by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights group.

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Cargo Coffee

Lynn Lee, left, with baker Katrina Harms and Lindsey Lee of the Cargo Coffee team in Madison.

Tate knew of Lee because the businessman publicly opposed the state referendum against same-sex marriage in 2006 and backed the push to legalize same-sex marriage, which ended in success in 2014.

Lee recalled the personal impact of the anti-gay amendment campaign on his brother and his brother’s partner — and on the infant girl they had only recently adopted. Eventually the two men legally married in San Francisco.

“They were the ideal family,” Lee said.

Two years ago, on Thanksgiving, Lynn Lee’s husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor and he died within a month.

Lindsey Lee thought about his family when he was asked to sign the brief in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

“My relationship with Lynn plays really big in my involvement,” said Lee. “There’s very few issues that I would publicly associate with the business, but this is definitely one of them.”

Before the high court

The amicus brief that Lindsey Lee signed challenges the argument by Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips that the First Amendment guarantees him the right to refuse to create a cake for a same-sex couple celebrating their wedding.

The dispute dates to July 2012. Charlie Craig and David Mullins went to the bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, and asked Phillips to make a cake for their wedding reception. In a conversation that lasted about 20 or 30 seconds, Phillips refused, saying to do so would go against his Christian beliefs.

Craig and Mullins married and even received a free rainbow-themed wedding cake from another bakery, but Phillips’ service refusal led the couple to file a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

The gay couple — represented by the American Civil Liberties Union — maintains Phillips violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law.

Phillips — represented by the conservative Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom — maintains that as a cake artist, he cannot be compelled to create a cake at odds with his religious beliefs.

Having lost at every turn in Colorado, Phillips appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

His brief argues the state anti-discrimination law threatens “his and all like-minded believers’ freedom to live out their religious identity in the public square.”

On the other side, the gay couple and the state of Colorado argue the public accommodations law applies to conduct — the baking and selling of a cake in this situation — and not Phillips’ speech.

Furthermore, their argument says a ruling in Masterpieces’ favor would allow businesses to “claim a safe harbor from any commercial regulation” by stating they believe complying with the law would send a message with which they disagree.

“The Supreme Court will basically decide in this case whether or not businesses across the whole country have the right to discriminate, including businesses here in Wisconsin,” said Chris Ott, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Chef’s brief

The issue for Lee is that when a business opens its doors, it must be open to all people, not some people.

“I think it is well understood that when you are running a business, serving the public, you can’t refuse service based on race, gender and we’ve added, as we should, sexual orientation. … I’ll be shocked if the Supreme Court backtracks,” Lee said.

Among others signing the brief are celebrity chefs Jose Andres, Elizabeth Falkner, Carla Hall, Padma Lakshmi, Anthony Bourdain and Tom Colicchio.

“The culinary community has joined this brief to relay a very simple message: We welcome all,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign. “If a business is open on Main Street, it must be open to everyone, regardless of whom they love.”

The brief argues that the kind of exemption from public accommodations laws that Phillips seeks would “upend anti-discrimination norms accepted throughout the country to the detriment of historically disfavored minority groups.”

Contained in the brief is a lesson in the civil-rights movement in the U.S. and the protests at lunch counters and cafeterias to end segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly prohibits discrimination in “any restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain or other facility principally engaged in selling food.”

The brief states: If a restaurant opens its doors for a Sweet 16 party, then a restaurant cannot refuse to host a quinceañera. If a restaurant sells a Valentine’s Day special, it cannot refuse to serve that special to an interracial couple.

More than 200 additional bakers, chefs and restaurant owners in every state signed on to the brief.

Lee was the only signer from Wisconsin, but he believes he represents “hundreds if not thousands in the state who would be willing to sign on.”

On the web

WiG asked several of the plaintiffs who helped win marriage equality in Wisconsin about the latest LGBTQ equality case to reach the Supreme Court. Go to www.wisconsingazette.com for the interviews.

Did you know?

Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, was honored as “The Knot Best of Weddings” choice in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012 — but has not won the honor since refusing to create a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding reception.

Editor’s note: Writer Lisa Neff’s wife, Connie Wolgast, is a baker at Ginny’s and Jane E’s at the Old IGA in Anna Maria, Florida. Like Lindsey Lee, she signed the Chefs Equality Brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court. The couple married in Illinois in 2015 and ordered a tiered wedding cake without hassle or harassment.

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