A few years ago, I took part in a panel discussion on church-state issues at a Seventh-day Adventist church in Takoma Park, Maryland. During the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked why the Christian owner of a business should be expected to serve LGBT people.
One of my fellow panelists was a burly, bearded Adventist attorney. His answer was spot on. I don’t remember the exact words, but he said something like this: “I’m left-handed. If I walked into a store and was told, ‘I’m sorry. We don’t serve left-handed people,’ my response to that would be simple: ‘Well, you do now.’”
I thought about those words recently after I appeared on the Fox News Channel to discuss the case of Jack Phillips, a Lakewood, Colorado, baker who refused to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and was fined.
I didn’t expect most Fox viewers to agree with me, and sure enough, several of them – when they were done calling me names and suggesting that I do things to myself that I’m not sure are physiologically possible – raised the argument of “Other bakers would have served that couple. Why didn’t they just go somewhere else?”
Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether you can always go somewhere else. In small towns and rural areas that may not be possible. But in suburban and urban areas there will be other providers, so why not just be content to move on?
The argument has superficial appeal. It collapses under closer scrutiny.
Some background: Colorado law bars discrimination in “public accommodations.” The group One Colorado describes a public accommodation as “an entity that offers sales or services of any kind to the public: businesses, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, clinics and health clubs.”
In Colorado, sexual orientation is treated the same as race, gender, religion and national origin when it comes to anti-discrimination policies. Some people simply refuse to recognize this equivalency. No one would tell a black couple turned away from a business because of their race that it was no big deal and advise them to go somewhere else. Yet some have no trouble saying this very thing to a same-sex couple.
Imagine if Phillips had announced that, due to his sincerely held religious beliefs, he would no longer provide cakes for interfaith or interracial couples. Again, what would happen – what should happen? Yes, we could shrug and tell the aggrieved couples, “It’s no biggie. There’s another bakery four blocks away.” Most fair-minded people, I hope, would realize that this isn't an acceptable solution. The real solution is that Phillips must follow the law.
If the law treats LGBT people exactly the same as it does African Americans, Jews, Latinos, etc. – and in Colorado it does – then why shouldn’t they demand their rights?
Sometimes people bring these cases precisely because discrimination against individuals based on factors they can’t change or should not be expected to change is an evil that must be stamped out.
The African Americans who demanded service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960 could have gone somewhere else to eat. I doubt they were sitting there because they had heard about the awesome blue plate special at Woolworth’s. They went on purpose because they knew that lunch counter would not serve them, and they wanted to make a point: such denials of service are an affront to human dignity and decency. They relegate a segment of our population to second-class citizenship.
Some people argue that this analogy fails because LGBT people haven’t had the same experience historically as blacks. They weren’t brought here in chains, forced into slavery and then subjected to decades of repressive, humiliating Jim Crow laws.
That’s true, but it misses the point. LGBT people have had plenty of bad experiences in their history, but this isn’t a contest. If the rights of individuals are being violated, if people are the victims of unfair treatment, if they are made to accept lesser status in a society that strives for equality, if they are being told, in effect, “Get out, I do not serve your kind here,” then decent people have a right – indeed, a duty – to rectify that by all legal means, including litigation.
Yes, the same-sex couple in Colorado could have gone somewhere else for a cake. And the lunch counter protestors in Greensboro could have gotten a sandwich at another restaurant.
The whole point is that they shouldn’t have to.