Masterpiece Cakeshop Co-Founders Challenged Biblical Rules on Divorce

Baker Jack Phillips decorates a cake in his Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood
A book authored by relatives of Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips said biblical rules on divorce need to be rethought.
Reuters/Rick Wilking

While an evangelical baker in Colorado who was at the center of legal disputes over religious liberty drew a hard biblical line in his refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, two evangelical co-founders and apparently the sole funders of that bakery published a book that argued that the biblical rules on divorce resulted from misinterpretations of the Bible and needed to be rethought.

“Some teach that good Christians must not consider divorce and must not even mention the word divorce,” says “Rethinking Biblical Divorce: Let Scripture Be Your Guide,” a 2017 book. “This may sound wise, but it is not a biblical teaching. Not only is this unbiblical, it can also lead to much hypocrisy.”

The book was authored by James Sander, his wife Linda Sander, and apparently one of their five children. James is the brother-in-law of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who cited his religious views in refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012. The couple filed an ultimately successful discrimination complaint against Phillips with the Colorado Human Rights Commission and that launched a case that eventually arrived at the US Supreme Court in 2017. In 2018, the court issued a narrow opinion that struck down the judgment against Phillips saying the commission had shown anti-religious bias against him.

Phillips, who is an evangelical Christian, and other right wingers wanted a broader ruling that limited or perhaps even eliminated the reach of anti-discrimination laws as they might apply to religious conservatives who claim a religious exemption in refusing to employ, rent, sell to, or otherwise serve LGBTQ people.

Sander and his wife, Phillips’ sister, are listed as two of the four members of the board of directors of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Phillips’ bakery, in the 1992 incorporation documents. The other two board members are Phillips and his wife Debra. James and Jack are listed as the two incorporators in those documents.

Phillips published “The Cost of My Faith: How a Decision in My Cake Shop Took Me to the Supreme Court” in May of this year. In the acknowledgments, Phillips wrote “Linda and Jim, when I didn’t have the money to match my dreams, you’ve been there, not only with physical, tangible help, but also with the spiritual example of what God has designed us to do for brothers in Christ.”

In response to a July 6 email to Jack and James asking a number of questions, including if Sander and his wife were still legally involved in the business and if Jack believed that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, Jack wrote “I forwarded your questions to my attorney.” Other than that July 6 response, Gay City News had not received a response as of July 12.

Evangelicals cite multiple verses in the Bible to argue that divorce should be strictly limited to those instances in which a spouse engages in sexual immorality. Some Christian denominations bar divorce entirely or will not marry people who have previously divorced. The Sander book argues that there are instances, such as when a spouse abuses the other spouse, in which divorce is the correct and only remedy and that doctrinal and social sanctions should not be applied.

Evangelicals have long carved out exceptions to biblical rules for themselves even as they condemn others for violating those rules or insist that others must follow other rules to the letter. In response to the July 6 email, Phillips did not explain how his absolute line on baking a wedding cake for a gay couple could exist with an argument that says that many evangelicals do not understand the Bible’s view on divorce made by a co-founder of his business.

The push for exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for religious conservatives is a recent phenomenon, though this is a movement without a cause. While there were religious conservatives who claimed such exemptions prior to 2004 when Massachusetts allowed same-sex couples to marry, the wider effort to effectively gut anti-discrimination laws began in earnest after 2004 with a conference on same-sex marriage and religious liberty sponsored by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

In friend of the court briefs filed in US Supreme Court cases in 2013, the Becket Fund opposed overturning California’s Prop. 8, a 2008 ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in that state, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 federal law that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. The Becket Fund also supported Prop. 8 in 2008.

In 2008, the Becket Fund published “Same Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts” with chapters from six attorneys. The book was edited by Anthony Picarello, the general counsel at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops; Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who has consistently argued for creating exceptions for religious liberty to state and federal laws; and Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois and a leading proponent of carving out religious exceptions to state and federal laws.

Some authors made shrill predictions about the clashes that they claimed were coming and the harm that religious liberty would endure due to same-sex marriage, but pointed to no conflicts. Wilson cited just three commitment ceremonies that resulted in disputes.

One author, Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, said that same-sex marriage “miseducates the public” about the meaning of marriage, but concluded that “this miseducation has — at least thus far — had a relatively minor impact on the broader understanding on the broader historical and cultural understanding of the meaning of marriage” in the US.

In 2018, Wilson and William Eskridge, an out gay law professor at Yale, edited “Religious Freedom, LGBT Rights, and the Prospects for Common Ground.” One contributor, Ryan Anderson, now the president of the right wing Ethics & Public Policy Center, wrote that the conflicts “involve an astonishingly small number of business owners who cannot in good conscience support same-sex wedding celebrations.”

In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to include LGBT people in its anti-discrimination law. Today, 23 states have such laws though the scope of the protections varies, according to 2020 data compiled by the Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank, at UCLA. In any given year, hundreds if not thousands of LGBT people file complaints with the state agencies that enforce these laws.