The state of Colorado has agreed to settle its legal dispute with Masterpiece Cakeshop and its owner, Jack Phillips, over the shop's refusal to make a custom cake for a transgender woman, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced.
The two sides "have mutually agreed to end their ongoing state and federal court litigation," an announcement Tuesday from Weiser's office said.
The state and Phillips have been battling for years over his refusal in a pair of well-publicized cases to design custom products for LGBTQ customers. Phillips has maintained that to do so would violate his religious beliefs, adding that all customers are free to buy non-custom products at his Lakewood shop.
"Under the terms of the agreement, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission will voluntarily dismiss the state administrative action against Masterpiece Cakeshop and its owner, Jack Phillips, and Mr. Phillips will voluntarily dismiss his federal court case against the state," Weiser's office said.
The statement said the commission agreed to the settlement in a unanimous vote.
Phillips' most recent case against the state involved attorney Autumn Scardina, a transgender woman who in 2017 attempted to get Masterpiece Cakeshop to make a cake that would celebrate her male-to-female transition. Scardina said the cake was to have been blue on the outside and pink on the inside.
The shop refused, citing religious beliefs. Scardina filed a complaint with the state civil rights division.
On June 28, 2018, the Colorado Civil Rights Division issued a finding that there was probable cause that the cakeshop had discriminated against Scardina because she is transgender and ordered the matter to be settled through mediation. In October, the civil rights commission issued a formal complaint against Phillips.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization that says it defends people based on their religious beliefs, filed a federal lawsuit against the division, the commission, and the Colorado governor and attorney general in August 2018, complaining that the state is "on a crusade to crush Plaintiff Jack Phillips because its officials despise what he believes and how he practices his faith.”
In the lawsuit, Phillips' attorneys said he "believes as a matter of religious conviction that sex — the status of being male or female — is given by God, is biologically determined, is not determined by perceptions or feelings, and cannot be chosen or changed."
The lawsuit sought $100,000 in damages from Civil Rights Division Executive Director Aubrey Elenis.
In January of this year, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Wiley Y. Daniel ruled over the state's objections that the lawsuit could go forward, saying Phillips was able to demonstrate that actions by the state are causing injury.
The agreement announced Tuesday "does not affect the ability of Autumn Scardina, the complainant in the state administrative case, to pursue a claim on her own," the Weiser statement said. It said that "each side will bear their own costs and attorneys’ fees."
Weiser as attorney general represents both the Civil Rights Commission and the director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division in the legal dispute.
“After careful consideration of the facts, both sides agreed it was not in anyone’s best interest to move forward with these cases," Weiser said. "The larger constitutional issues might well be decided down the road, but these cases will not be the vehicle for resolving them. Equal justice for all will continue to be a core value that we will uphold as we enforce our state’s and nation’s civil rights laws."
Colorado law bars discrimination by a business on the basis of a customer's sexual orientation.
It wasn't immediately known if Scardina, the Denver attorney, planned further action involving Phillips. Telephone messages for Autumn Scardina and for Todd Scardina, an attorney representing Autumn in the civil rights commission proceedings, weren't immediately returned Tuesday.
An earlier case involving Phillips' refusal in 2012 to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, drew national attention when it rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in June 2018, overturned a ruling by the Civil Rights Commission that found that Phillips had discriminated against a same-sex couple. The court found that the commission had not exercised its "obligation of religious neutrality."
However, the court's ruling was narrowly tailored and applied to how the state handled the Masterpiece case, avoiding setting a national precedent on religious beliefs as a defense for discrimination based on sexual orientation.
A statement Tuesday from Alliance Defending Freedom described the settlement agreement as a "victory for Jack Phillips."
“The state of Colorado is dismissing its case against Jack, stopping its six and a half years of hostility toward him for his beliefs,” ADF executive Kristen Waggoner, who argued on behalf of Phillips at the U.S. Supreme Court, said in the group's statement.
“Jack’s victory is great news for everyone," Waggoner said. "Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a diverse society like ours. They enable us to peacefully coexist with each another. But the state’s demonstrated and ongoing hostility toward Jack because of his beliefs is undeniable.”
In response to Weiser's announcement, Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado -- an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Coloradans -- issued this statement:
“Despite the mutual agreement between the State of Colorado and Masterpiece Cakeshop, the law is still the law. No matter who you are, who you love, or what you believe, Coloradans across our state — including LGBTQ Coloradans and their families — are still protected under Colorado law from discrimination in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations.
"We strongly believe that the freedom of religion must be defended as one of our most fundamental values as Americans, and that freedom cannot be used to harm or discriminate against others," the statement continued. "The fact remains that Colorado has a civil rights division and anti-discrimination laws that equally protect the fundamental rights of all Coloradans. Businesses may decide what products or services they offer, but they do not get to pick and choose who they offer those products or services to. The very narrow ruling by the Supreme Court in Masterpiece vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission does not change our country’s long-standing principle that businesses open to the public must be open to all.”
In January, a state bill aimed at reimbursing Phillips for his legal expenses died in a state House committee.
The Associated Press contributed.