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A Non-partisan Approach to Understanding Politics

Gay Wedding Cakes

The new “conscience laws” in Indiana and Arkansas are causing quite a stir.

Here is what I think happened, but please update me or correct me in places where you see I am wrong in facts or logic.

Although other incidences have happened over the years, this controversy got its igniting spark from a bakery. When rage is smoldering, any spark may set off a conflagration. For example, when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus, that spark was enough to bring all the unjust and inhumane Jim Crow laws into question and resulted in the 1960s civil rights demonstrations and riots, which in turn ultimately brought about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Here is what happened... correct me if I’m wrong. A gay couple wanted to get married and went to a bakery for a wedding cake. The cake would be decorated to signify this is a gay wedding... perhaps they had two little male groom statues on top, rather than a groom and bride. The baker refused because homosexuality went against his religion and therefore against his conscience.

The gay couple sued and won the lawsuit. The baker would have to provide the cake. Whether the gay couple did it simply to antagonize the baker and make a court issue, I don’t know. I do know they could have gone to another bakery and got the job done.

At the same time, the Indiana Walkerton pizzeria owner’s daughter said she would refuse to cater a gay wedding. That was later overridden by her father, who said anybody would be served without regard to his/her orientation or gender identity. But it was too late; the damage was done.

This controversy has been raging for months over whether businesses had to offer equal service to customers whose practices offended their conscience.

Then, Arkansas and Indiana passed nearly identical laws of conscience, relieving business owners from being forced to do something against their conscience. For example, should a black baker be forced to provide a special cake for a KKK function? Should a Jewish baker be forced to provide a special cake for American Neo-Nazis to celebrate Adolph Hitler’s birthday? If those people should not be forced to go against their conscience, why should a religious person, trying to follow his faith, go against his religious conscience regarding homosexuals?

Indiana allows gay marriage, which was forced upon it by court action. Arkansas does not allow gay marriage yet, but the matter is in Arkansas courts and their law may also be overturned. Courts overturning laws supported by the people infuriates people.

Because the conscience laws seemed directed against gay people (it is itself illegal to direct a law against a specific class of people) Indiana and Arkansas both attached an amendment to their laws specifically stating that law may not be used as an excuse to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

I’m not sure how the conscience law and its amendment are supposed to work. The law was inspired to be discriminatory against gay people, but at the same time its amendment does not allow the law to be enforced in that way. The courts will have to work that one out. And who knows, that may be overturned, too.

The Question at Hand
The question I want to discuss here is whether we should have laws of conscience. Should a business person be allowed to discriminate against someone else in his own business for conscience sake? May a Jewish man deny service to American Nazis? Or an American Nazi to a Jewish person? May a black man deny his business service to the KKK? May a religious business person deny service to gay customers?

When there are multiple legitimate sides to a story, I use two methods to decide if something is right or wrong. One is to reduce the question to an absurdity. That is, to follow it to its logical conclusion and decide if that is absurd. Take, for example, the quote, “That government is best which governs least” (attributed to both Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson). It follows then that the best government of all is no government at all. But that is absurd, because we need someone with power to represent us to other nations, to protect us against attack, to regulate copyrights, and so on.

A second way to decide if something is right or wrong is to put it into a non-controversial context. Take two people arguing about something and express it in terms that both agree on. Then follow it to its logical conclusion. This is the method I will use to analyze the gay wedding cake issue.

The Issue
A religious store owner of a small business wants simply to earn a living for his family and to practice his religion. His religion happens to include the belief that gay people are an abomination before God and God commands them to be stoned to death. The store also displays the sign, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. ” Besides that, there are other businesses in town who will provide for gay people; let them go elsewhere. Two gay people come into this store wanting the store owner to give them the same service as any other townspeople. The owner politely refuses.

Should that be legal? Whose rights take precedence? The owner, who has the religious right to conscience? Or the customer who has the right of a citizen? This issue is explosive because of what’s been happening in the background throughout America for years. It’s a powder keg waiting for a spark.

The Method of Resolution
Let’s remove the basic issue from explosive emotion and define it in terms of something that has been settled for years: post-civil war treatment of black people.

Before the American Civil War, some religions were teaching that black people were subhuman like apes, had no souls and could not be saved. Other religions taught that being black was the Mark of Cain, a sign that God has rejected these people and consigned them to slavery for all generations. These religious teachings played easily into one’s own pride and way of life.

After the Civil War, black people were scattered throughout the South, having no job, no land, no home and no skills. Many lived in or near small towns, where only one store of a kind may exist.

So now, in our example, take a black person trying to provide for his or her family. He walks three miles to the nearest town. He has seventy-five cents (a princely sum!) in his pocket to buy a week’s worth of food. He goes into a store, only to have the owner tell him, “We don’t serve niggers here.”

Should that be legal? Should a business person who caters to the common citizen be allowed to deny services to another citizen for prejudice sake?

My opinion is No.

What about Exceptions?

What about the sign that says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”? That sign could say anything; it doesn’t matter. It can not make a new law or rescind an existing law. If somebody posted the sign, “We reserve the right to stone to death anyone we choose” does that give them the right? No it doesn’t. The sign is meaningless and is not law.

What about necessary and non-necessary products? Can a person be forbidden to deny somebody food, but be allowed to deny somebody the right to buy a diamond ring? There is no difference for two reasons.

  • One, nobody can tell somebody else what is necessary for them. A person may have plenty of food and still want more. Another person may be required to produce a diamond ring to pay a debt. Nobody can judge what is necessary for you except you yourself.
  • The other reason is that why should one business person be penalized or privileged over another business person? For a just nation, laws should apply equally for everyone.

What about competition? If a person can’t buy what he wants at one place, why not just go to another place? Because, in small towns, there might be only one reasonable place to do business. A nation should not make unequal laws, one that applies to businesses in large cities and another that applies to businesses in small cities. Besides, who decides how big a city must be before it is a “big” city?

What about religious freedom, or freedom of conscience? Some religions call for illegal civil practices. Black people may not be enslaved regardless of what a religion says. Gay people may not be stoned regardless of what a religion says. Honor killings may not be enacted regardless of a religion.

Is there any way a person may obey his conscience? Yes, if that way is not imposed upon the general public. For example, if you form a church and its benefits – such as running a food bank – are designated for its adult members only, then you may exclude the general public. But all the general public must be excluded. You may not include all the general public except gay people because of your religion. And your conscience may not deprive any person, even a member of your group, of his civil right to life or other basic liberties such as marriage. You may exclude him from your group, but you may not take away his rights under this nation.

A nation’s laws must be just and equal for all its citizens.




Copyright © 2015 by Jerald L. Brown