The other day I was on a short domestic flight. Little did I know it would be a great learning experience. I was seated on the aisle and sitting across from me were two people having a friendly, but heated, conversation about Religious Freedom and LGBT Rights. Given what I have been working on I thought, wow, what a small world, but kept my mouth shut and listened. The man sitting closest to me was talking about a recent case in Pennsylvania that may have involved discrimination against an LGBT couple by neighbors (more on that case in a moment). The woman sitting next to him in the window seat mentioned the bakery case from Colorado. Neither used the names of the cases, but I figured the man was talking about the Bucktoe Manor Architectural Control Committee et. al. v. Davis et. al. case, which has recently made headlines, and that the woman was talking about the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
The conversation was centered on who was being discriminated against the most, religious people who oppose same-sex marriage or the LGBT community. Each made arguments that were interesting and much better than what I often overhear when people raise these topics, and certainly better than I often hear in news stories. The man mentioned what had happened to the couple involved in the Pennsylvania case and their kids. I assumed he was referencing Keith Davis and his partner David Ruth and their kids. For those of you not familiar with the situation. Davis and Ruth were sued by neighbors over a fence shortly after moving to a neighborhood. A court found that neighborhood rules were selectively enforced against the couple and that their being gay seemed to be a major factor in that selective enforcement. To make matters worse the words “Get Out Fags” was spray painted on their garage (and they were the victims of other acts of vandalism). The case does not involve any religious defense, but it is a disturbing situation that involved brazen homophobic discrimination. The man on the plane did a good job explaining what happened, but then said something to the effect that there is too much discrimination against gay people and that “religion” laws are protecting people who discriminate.
The woman with whom he was speaking agreed the situation he described was terrible, but said “religion” laws are not the problem. She then mentioned the “bakery owner in Colorado,” who I assumed was Jack Phillips, the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop. She did a good job stating the basic situation that gave rise to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Phillips owned and ran a small bakery and he had no problem serving anyone, whether gay or not. He also had no problem making cakes, pastries, etc. for any family event whether the event was for a straight or gay couple. Phillips, who is a born again Christian, did however, have a problem with baking a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage because he believes it is a sin to be complicit in a marriage that is not between one man and one woman. As a result he was sued. As readers of this blog know he lost his case. Interestingly, the woman argued that this was discrimination against him for being Christian and that there are many similar cases.
I must admit that I had not viewed the case or its result as discrimination against Phillips, but rather as a possible violation of his civil liberties. The key, at least in my mind, was whether an appropriate accommodation could be found to protect his religious freedom, but which would not harm the couple who sought his services. The woman on the plane, however, made a powerful argument that “the baker” (Phillips) didn’t have any problem with members of the LGBT community and did not mean to harm anyone since he would have been happy to help the couple with anything else, so that the lawsuit and ruling in the case were targeting, i.e. discriminating, against him based on his religion. The man said that is a terrible situation and asked if she knew why the couple didn’t just go to a different bakery. He explained that if it had been him and his partner they might have been offended, but would have respected Phillips religion and gone elsewhere for their cake.
I finally chimed in and introduced myself as someone with a bit of background in the area. I thanked them both for having such a calm and thoughtful conversation and explained that it would be wonderful if more people could share and empathize with people on both sides of the debate as they each had done. I suggested that good “religion” laws are not a problem, but that some states have been trying to pass laws targeting members of the LGBT community and those are a problem. I also explained that these laws have been struck down by a court in Mississippi and are likely to be struck down in North Carolina and elsewhere when they arise. I suggested that “good” religious freedom laws protect many people from government substantially interfering with their religion.
I also suggested that perhaps both the “baker” (Jack Phillips) and the same-sex couple for whom he refused to make a wedding cake faced discrimination. The couple went to a shop for a wedding cake and they were discriminated against based on their marriage and sexual orientation. Phillips’ sincere religious belief did not minimize the pain of that discrimination. Yet, Phillips himself was the victim of a system that forced him to violate his religious tenets or stop making wedding cakes, which is a major way in which his bakery supported itself. The fact that he could make other cakes would not lessen his pain either. I suggested that the best thing would be to have strong laws protecting members of the LGBT community and strong laws protecting religious freedom, but that even then what to do about small family owned businesses was tough because they serve the general public. The ideal would be for people to just leave these sorts of businesses alone and not sue unless they discriminate against gay patrons or same-sex couples more generally, but I explained that is not likely to happen in today’s climate with both sides seeking out “test cases.”
I thanked them for their thoughtfulness and said the best hope moving forward is good people like them having rational empathetic discussion that can allow us to build bridges. I gave them each a business card and walked off the plane with a sense of hope that the middle may yet find it’s voice.