A famous French painter once said that “creativity takes courage.” Over the years as a cake artist, I’ve found that to be true in more ways than one.
My mom and I own an award-winning cake bakery in Florida. We take great joy in our custom cakes. We’ve created birthday cakes with themes from “Jurassic Park,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and Disney princesses. We’ve celebrated events with a firehouse wedding cake, tiered cakes that look like stacked suitcases and cakes with text saying “Happily Ever After.” And we’ve designed many, many more besides.
We approach each design with courageous creativity. We take risks, try new things and push the limits of what’s possible on an edible canvas. But ultimately our creations take courage because we put ourselves out there with each design or message. Our custom cakes reflect who we are as artists and people.
That’s why, when a man asked us to design a custom cake with a message criticizing the LGBTQ+ community, I hung up the phone. My mom and I just didn’t want to create a cake with that mean message on it.
Turns out, this decision demanded a whole lot of courage. After the call, we faced a lawsuit, a barrage of hostile phone calls, death threats and fake orders and online reviews. It was awful.
That experience led me to sign a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court in 303 Creative v. Elenis. The case involves graphic artist Lorie Smith, who challenged a Colorado law that required her to create custom art and websites promoting ideas contrary to the core of who she is. I think that’s wrong.
Thankfully, just days ago, so did the Supreme Court. The court decided 303 Creative and reaffirmed that the government cannot tell us to say things that we don’t believe in. That’s good news for everyone.
I disagree with Lorie about same-sex marriage, and we would make a custom wedding cake celebrating a same-sex ceremony. But I’m committed to the freedom of expression. That freedom is a two-way street. Freedom isn’t free when only some people get to use it — whether it’s those with the most popular views or those whom government officials happen to agree with. Free speech is for all of us — it guarantees we’ll be free to take our true selves into the marketplace and create and speak freely no matter who’s in power or what beliefs the government favors. The same freedom that protects Lorie also protects my ability to express ideas consistent with my beliefs. And it protects yours as well.
My mom and I are lucky that our judge decided that Florida law didn’t force us to create cakes with messages that we found offensive. In our case, the man said we discriminated against him because of his religious beliefs because the requested message was part of those beliefs.
Our judge disagreed. He said that we “refused to make” the cake “solely based on what (we) perceived to be an ‘ugly’ message, not because of” the man’s religious beliefs. There’s a difference between declining a custom project based on who asks for it versus declining based on what message the person requests. We wouldn’t have made that cake for anyone regardless of their beliefs. We just objected to the message we were being asked to create and express. Thankfully, the judge didn’t fall for accusations of discrimination that are so often used to coerce freedom and shut down good-faith debate and honest disagreement.
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I’m thrilled the Supreme Court recognized that same thing — that declining to express a certain message is not the same thing as declining to serve a particular person. Just like in our case. Free speech won out over false accusations.
Creativity truly does take courage. But it need not come at the expense of lawsuits and lost livelihoods. Censoring and harassing our fellow citizens because government officials disagree with an idea is contrary to the First Amendment and our nation’s guiding principles. We deserve our freedom to exercise courageous creativity in peace. There’s a good chance that, if we live and let live, this country will be a sweeter, more colorful, better place because of it.
Cyndol McNeil runs a family-owned bakery and designs custom cakes in Florida.