NEW YORK — It should be a piece of cake. Customer comes in, asks for a cake with a specific design or for a particular event, baker makes it, everyone's happy.
But sometimes customers and bakers have clashed over what goes on the cake, or whether to make it at all. An Oregon bakery was fined $135,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian couple's wedding. A baker in Colorado earned a customer's ire because she refused to write anti-gay messages on his cake. A Louisiana man posted a video to the Internet lambasting a local Wal-Mart for not making a cake with a Confederate flag on it.
Somehow, this mix of flour, butter, eggs and sugar with frosting on top has become yet another delivery system for American political debate, raising questions about where the customer's free speech ends and the baker's begins.
"Cake has had symbolic meaning in this country," even aside from politics, said Stephen Schmidt, food historian and writer for the Manuscripts Cookbook Survey. "We think of cake as something that can carry that meaning, whereas I don't think the French do."
But some political experts question whether frosting florets on a cake really are the best way to get your way of thinking out there. Would a strongly worded tweet, letter to the editor or yard sign be a better choice than the grand unveiling of the cake to the tune of "Happy Birthday"?
"There's got to be some kind of psychological profile of individuals who deem it important enough to have their politics on their cake," said Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College. "Have their cake and ideology, too."
Some of the most contentious fights have involved bakers who refused to make a cake for same-sex weddings, frays that have also entangled the likes of florists and photographers.
Bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein of Gresham, Oregon, said their religious beliefs would be violated in 2013 if they made a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. The women filed a discrimination complaint and were awarded damages.
There's also been the reverse. Last year, when a customer wanted anti-gay messages on a cake, Marjorie Silva, owner of Azucar Bakery in Denver refused to do it. She told him that she would bake the cake, but that he would have to write his own messages.
"We're human beings, too; we have our beliefs, we should be respected," she said
Free speech issues have come into play in jurisdictions with laws banning discrimination against certain protected classes. Some bakers have argued that being forced to make a cake for something that went against their religious beliefs was a form of compelled speech by the government, barred by the First Amendment.
But courts have ruled that a business open to the public has to be open to everyone.
"The answer so far that courts have given is, no, it's not coercion ... because you do have a choice" about whether to be in business to the public, said Nelson Tebbe, professor at Brooklyn Law School.
Images and words perceived as hateful have raised yet another flavor of cake fight.
A Louisiana man in June wanted a local Wal-Mart to make a cake with an image of the Confederate flag and the phrase "Heritage Not Hate," but was refused. Chuck Netzhammer then ordered a cake with a flag used by the Islamic State group, which he got. Wal-Mart apologized and said the cake was a mistake, made by an employee that didn't recognize the flag and what it represented.
In 2009, a New Jersey supermarket refused to make a cake for a child whose full name was Adolf Hitler Campbell. The boy's mother said the cake was eventually made by a store in Pennsylvania.
For some cake makers, it's not for them to go against the customers' wishes.
Stacey Leon, of New York City's Butterfly Bakeshop, said she and husband keep their personal feelings out of the oven. While they've never been asked to make a cake they thought was truly objectionable, they have made cakes for causes they don't personally believe in.
"If it's a political party that we don't agree with, that doesn't mean we're not going to make their cake," she said. "We just have to separate the way we feel from our business."