Sometimes, the best journalism relies on a really simple recipe. That's the case with a recent Associated Press news-feature headlined "How a wedding cake became a cause."
Here at GetReligion, we have critiqued numerous mainstream media reports — here, here, here, here and here, for example — on the battle over religious freedom for bakers and others opposed to same-sex marriage.
But few, if any, of those stories on what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights have matched the quality of this AP story out of Colorado:
LAKEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- The encounter at Jack Phillips' Masterpiece Cakeshop lasted less than a minute.
Phillips stepped out from behind the counter in his small, pastry-crammed shop to meet customers Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins. They told him they wanted a cake to celebrate their own marriage.
Phillips replied he couldn't, but that he'd be glad to make one for other occasions, such as birthdays. Left unsaid was how making a gay wedding cake would violate his Christian faith, how he does not make ones for Halloween or bachelor parties, either.
Craig and Mullins left the shop, stunned. Left unsaid was how they viewed themselves as a regular couple, their wedding a private celebration, not a political statement. They simply wanted a no-frills cake.
Crushed, they posted a note about the encounter on Facebook and soon the cake had become a cause, with the sides becoming stand-ins for the culture wars: Phillips was portrayed as the intolerant business owner. The couple became the gay rights activists pushing their agenda, some claimed.
As Religion News Service's Cathy Grossman did with her recent profile on Hobby Lobby's Steve Green, AP's Nicholas Riccardi puts a fresh face — make that faces — on this story.
Riccardi does so by focusing on real people — their experiences, their beliefs — and avoiding the kind of legalese and screaming talking heads that characterize much media coverage.
After a vague mention of Phillips growing up in a "religious household," the AP story describes the baker's conversion experience and provides insight into how his faith plays into his profession:
From the start, he knew there'd be limitations on what he could do. "In everything I do, I think about how people will perceive Christ through me, by what I sell, what I make," Phillips said.
The display cases bulge with cakes of every color. One depicted a trio of crosses on a hill, with the words "He Has Risen."
Phillips takes his cake-making personally. As he prepares a cake for a child's first birthday, Phillips makes a separate cupcake-sized piece to be placed on the kid's high chair, envisioning the moment the tot will dig into it, smearing frosting across his or her face.
For weddings, he interviews the couple to find out how they met, their mutual interests, what color dresses the bridesmaids will wear.
"When I decorate a cake, I feel like I'm part of the party," said Phillips, who had refused previous orders for cakes for gay weddings.
Similarly, the story describes the cake rejection through the eyes of the gay couple (whose religious background or not is, unfortunately, not addressed):
The couple met in Denver through a mutual friend. A 2006 ballot measure outlawed gay marriages in Colorado, so they planned a small wedding in Massachusetts, where it was legal. That would be followed by a larger reception in Colorado.
The Lakewood restaurant hosting the reception suggested they get their cake at Masterpiece. They took Craig's mother, visiting from Wyoming, to the shop to help pick a cake. "We wanted this just to be about us," Mullins said.
After separate sections on the baker and the couple, the story returns to the ongoing court case and wraps up what's at stake for each side.
So, the basic story arc is this: Big picture. One side's perspective. The other side's perspective. Big picture again. The end.
Sometimes, the best journalism relies on a really simple recipe.