Civil Rights Laws, Discrimination, and cakes

I’m distraught in seeing some reactions to the Masterpiece case before the Supreme Court. Just in case you haven’t followed the story, this is the case involving a baker who refused to even talk to a couple about their wedding cake because the couple getting married were two men. (For the record, the couple wanted a cake that would be like the cakes the baker made for straight couples — they weren’t asking for a special “gay cake”.) The baker claims it is against his religion to bake the cake — a cake that looks like any other wedding cake. The Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act bars discrimination in public accommodations (businesses that are open to the public) on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, age, national origin, or ancestry. So the baker clearly broke state law. At question is whether one’s religious beliefs can override Civil Rights.

This question has been asked and answered since the Piggie Park decision in 1968. The owner of Piggie Park Barbecue claimed that his religion opposed any integration of the races, so he could refuse to serve Black people. The courts ruled unanimously that”

Undoubtedly defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens.

If a business can discriminate based upon the religious beliefs of the owners, then all anti-discrimination laws become meaningless for things like housing, public accommodations, and employment — because racists, misogynists, homophobes, anti-semites, etc often use their religion as their excuse for their odious behavior.

And one cannot just say “take your business elsewhere”. All it takes is a quick look back in history to know that there was a time, not that long ago, when people of color had an incredibly difficult time finding a clean hotel room or a restaurant in many states. Or when businesses would post that they only hire men. Indeed, many states still have no protection for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

To make this even more frustrating, the majority of my interlocutors who were supporting the baker’s discriminatory actions were musicians (all white men, btw). Certainly these musicians are aware of the difficulties Black musicians faced in the US when trying to tour prior to the Civil Rights Act? Surely these musicians know the story of Red Rodney, who had to be booked as Albino Red, so he could share the stage with Charlie Parker?

I am worried that the court has swung so far to the right that this case will in practice overturn decades of civil rights laws (hopefully, they will look to the precedent of Piggie Park and rule in favor of the State of Colorado). But I am even more worried that so many people who should know better think that Civil Rights laws are unconstitutional. These are people who claim to have gay friends. These are people who claim to think racism wrong. These are people who claim to want their daughters to have the same access to opportunities as their sons. And yet these same people who SAY they believe these things, support the argument of the Piggie Park owner — that one’s religion can give cover to breaking the law and denying equal access to others.

And just to rebut a couple of the arguments I have heard defending the homophobic baker:

No, the government cannot force a halal restaurant to serve bacon. It can require that the restaurant serve all people regardless of the customers’ religion.

No, the baker wasn’t asked to make a cake that said anything about the gender(s) of the couple. The baker was asked just to make a cake like any other cake that is in the baker’s repertoire. The couple and a mother of one of the grooms were kicked out before even discussing what the couple wanted in their wedding cake.

No, this isn’t the same as whether a business can refuse service to someone who isn’t wearing shoes. Businesses can have a dress code — as long as that dress code doesn’t require removal of religiously required garments. Businesses can also refuse service to someone who is rude. Or someone who doesn’t have the appropriate means to pay. The law prohibits businesses from discrimination on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, age, national origin, or ancestry.

No, one cannot just go elsewhere. In large metropolitan areas, sure, there may be a wealth of bakers to chose from. In rural areas, the choice often isn’t there. Moreover, the issue is far bigger than a single bakery. It is about treating a group of people as second class citizens who need to check to see if a business is willing to serve them. Again, one only needs passing knowledge of US history to know that there was a time when these types of actions were rampant — and that is precisely why these laws were put into place to begin with.

In closing, ever since the Civil Rights Act was passed, there were those who sought to overturn it. They wanted to be able to discriminate at will. But these laws have been tested by the courts and upheld repeatedly. I am disturbed that there is even the possibility of anti-discrimination laws being overturned. And while I know there are plenty of people out there who wish for them to be overturned, I am saddened to learn that this position is held be far more than I had supposed.

I hope that those who support the baker in this case are just misinformed and don’t understand the gravity of the situation. But I fear that isn’t the case and the arguments of the bigots of the early 1960s are now given more credence than they were a half a century ago.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store