Rules Are for Schmucks: Cake Wars

The spread of same-sex marriage has spawned a number of side issues, including some involving cakes. In Des Moines, Iowa, for example, marriage equality advocates launched a boycott of Victoria’s Cake Cottage in 2011 after Victoria refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. In Oregon and Colorado there have been more than just boycotts‑there have been lawsuits brought by government agencies against bakeries for refusing to make cakes for same-sex weddings. “It’s a violation of my religious freedom,” is the simple explanation the bakers give. Other vendors, like banquet halls, have also refused to provide their services to same-sex weddings.

Most humanists have little sympathy for those who discriminate against same-sex weddings on religious grounds, just as we have little sympathy for those who would discriminate against interracial weddings on religious grounds. Yet our enthusiasm for equality may carry some of us too far.

In Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, the local Equality Commission (similar to our EEOC) last year filed an action against Ashers Baking Company for refusing to bake a cake featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie, who are thought to represent a same-sex couple (though the folks at Sesame Street deny this), with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage.” BBC lists this as one of the biggest Northern Ireland stories of 2014, and local politicians are now filing legislation to protect the bakery owners.

In Lexington, Kentucky, the Human Rights Commission ruled against a T-shirt printer last fall for refusing to print T-shirts for the Lexington Gay Pride Festival. The printer is now appealing the commission’s ruling in court.

What makes these two cases different from the others? A clue is provided by a Christian blogger named Theodore Shoebat, who took it upon himself last month to call thirteen “pro-gay bakers” (how he identified them, I don’t know) and ask them to bake a cake with the straightforward message “Gay marriage is wrong.” The response he got is not too surprising—according to Shoebat, all thirteen flatly refused to make such a cake. Some of them were rather rude about it, calling him “hateful.” Others just hung up.

So what, exactly, is the difference between this baker’s dozen, who refuse to produce a cake with a message on one side of the issue, and the bakers who are being sued by the government for refusing to produce a cake with a message on the other side?

One possible answer is that messages we agree with are ok, but messages we disagree with are not ok, and should be ruthlessly stamped out. That’s not a very appealing answer, though.

A better answer is that everyone makes mistakes, and the authorities in Northern Ireland and Kentucky are making a big one by bringing the weight of government down on people just for declining to promote political views they disagree with. That’s the big distinction between these two cases and the ones in Oregon and Colorado.

In Oregon and Colorado, the would-be customers were not trying to advocate any political point of view. They were simply trying to arrange a nice wedding, in accordance with applicable laws. When a business owner singles out certain types of people engaging in lawful commerce and says, “No, I won’t serve you,” then discrimination has occurred that ought to be punishable by law—whether the reason for discrimination is race, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever.

Politics is different. If I happen to be for or against the passage of a certain law, and you happen to disagree, neither one of us should be able to force the other to help advance a distasteful point of view. Religion has nothing to do with it, nor does discrimination against any class of people. The Lexington print shop, for example, has gay employees and will happily accept money from any gay customer for any kind of T-shirt‑other than one promoting a political message the owners oppose. The Irish bakery was not approached by a same-sex couple wanting to plan a wedding (same-sex marriage isn’t lawful there) but by people pushing for a change in the law. It’s not clear whether those seeking to purchase the cake were themselves gay or not, but they would have been rejected either way. That’s not discriminating against gays any more than the bakeries contacted by Shoebat are discriminating against straights.

The Humanist magazine accepts advertising. If some Christian group wants to run a “Come back to Jesus” ad, or an ad against gay marriage, should the magazine have to accept it? And what makes a magazine different from a cake (other than that the cake tastes better)?

In the Lexington case, a representative of the gay community gave the following testimony: “I believe that a gay printer would have to print a T-shirt for the Westboro Baptist Church,” referring to the notorious Kansas hate group. “And if the Westboro Baptist Church were to say, ‘Look, we’re a church; we’re promoting our church values by having our name on a T-shirt,’ I don’t see how you could refuse that.” Well, I see exactly how you could refuse that. As Oliver Twist’s Mr. Bumble put it, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass—a idiot.” No one should have to help spread the views of the Westboro Baptist Church, or any other political views they disagree with. That’s entirely different from refusing to serve ordinary people engaging in ordinary commerce, and governments need to appreciate that difference.