MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week, the Trump administration weighed in on an important civil rights case heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Justice Department sided with a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. To advocates in the LGBT community, it is just the latest disappointment from the Trump administration. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to tell us more. Carrie, thanks so much for joining us.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: My pleasure.
MARTIN: So take a step back for a moment, if you would, and tell us the background on this case that the Supreme Court is, in fact, preparing to hear.
JOHNSON: Sure. The owner of a Colorado shop called Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple several years ago. Colorado, like a lot of states, has public accommodation laws that are designed for businesses that interact with the public to prevent discrimination. And this baker, Jack Phillips, said no. He violated the statute on the books in Colorado, saying he didn't want to be compelled to violate his First Amendment rights, his deeply held religious beliefs, by celebrating this gay couple's marriage. But the same-sex couple said the baker was violating their rights.
And now we're into this tug of war. This week, the Justice Department and the Trump administration sided with the baker, said the government couldn't compel him to engage in free speech. And in their brief, said an artist cannot be forced to paint. A musician cannot be forced to play, and a poet cannot be forced to write. A baker can't be forced to make a wedding cake.
MARTIN: So in this country, laws saying you can't discriminate against people and offering public services were very hard won, as I think many people will remember. But they've been on the books for decades, so I think some people might ask, why is this any different from someone who is refusing to serve black people at a lunch counter, for example, or at a restaurant? What's the difference?
JOHNSON: Well, and the Justice Department briefing anticipated this argument. Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall says race is different. There's a compelling government interest in eradicating discrimination based on race. Laws that target racial bias can survive very strict scrutiny, strict review under the First Amendment. But those same classifications aren't so clear, the Trump DOJ says, for sexual orientation. Colorado only began issuing same sex-marriage licenses in 2014. And a divided Supreme Court only ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry. There's still a lot of litigation out there on how and if old civil rights laws that mention sex actually covers sexual orientation too.
MARTIN: So what have you been hearing about reaction to the Justice Department's decision to weigh in on the baker's behalf?
JOHNSON: More than 80 Republican members of Congress say they're going to file their own briefs supporting this cake shop owner. He even appeared on Capitol Hill this past week with Utah Senator Mike Lee. But this matter has been getting a very different reception in the LGBT community. The American Civil Liberties Union says it was shocked that the Justice Department would support what it calls a constitutional right to discriminate. And at Lambda Legal, which fights for LGBT people, Sharon McGowan, who directs strategy for Lambda Legal, says the Trump White House has put a target on the backs of LGBT people in order to score points with its political base.
MARTIN: You know, on the campaign trail last, year some might remember that President Trump - oh, then-candidate Trump - made certain statements that at least some gay and lesbian supporters took as assurances of his support for them. So how is his record now bearing out that point of view?
JOHNSON: His record in office has not quite backed that up according to gay rights advocates. Early on in this administration, the Justice Department revoked guidelines for how schools should treat access to bathrooms and locker rooms for transgender people. In July. The president tweeted would ban transgender people from the military. And his Justice Department also went out of the way to file a brief in another case. That case said the Civil Rights Act, which provides protections against discrimination for people in the workplace, did not cover sexual orientation according to Trump's DOJ.
MARTIN: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.