Write off Refusal

A baker, a lawyer and a gay couple walk into the Supreme Court,… stop me if you’ve heard this one.  If you haven’t it’s about the owner of a cake shop in Colorado citing a conflict between his religious convictions and a request for a slice of his artistic expression in the form of a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  Since his “expression” is protected by the First Amendment, he argues, he should not be forced to “express” something that he is morally opposed to.  So the question becomes when does a person have the right to refuse service to another?  Does a baker have the freedom of choice to not make a cake against his will?

We’d like to think that, as individuals, we have some free choice and free will remaining in our supposedly free society.  One might argue that while those freedoms are guaranteed to us as individual citizens they may not extend to the businesses we operate.   Does the act of hanging a shingle and starting a business imply you no longer have the choice of who you serve?  Well, yes; there are specific state and federal guidelines to protect against discrimination and while sexual orientation is not covered under the federal guidelines it is covered in Colorado where this case originated.  A restaurant can refuse service if you’re topless or shoeless, but they can’t do it based on your race, gender and, at least in Mile High country, who you want to marry.

Let’s take a step back; consider the movie star who enters the mantel of celebrity by choice of profession.  The simple act of doing what they love finds them in the spotlight, adored by millions of fans.  Does that new star status give strangers the right to disrupt someone’s privacy in the middle of a family dinner just to score an autograph?   Does the celebrity have the right to refuse the request?  Turning the celebrity analogy on its ear, let’s say you are a public shingle hanger and Harvey Weinstein walks into your establishment.  I think it’s fair to say everyone has a clear opinion of this man, so what if you’re not a fan?  How should you handle your new customer?  Regardless of what the local bylaws may state about lecherous power mongers there are likely to be people who would and wouldn’t be willing to sell the man a muffin.  In this context does the freedom to make the choice of service feel any more or less justified?

Now don’t get me wrong, I think Colorado has it right, and federal standards should already have protection for sexual orientation on the books, but I can’t help but feel that something about this idea flies contrary to the freedom of religion and religious beliefs.  While I may believe it’s morally wrong to exclude a group of people based on their gender identity or gender preferences, I can’t force my opinion on others.  It would be hypocritical to support ‘choice’ in all matters except this one.   Is it ok for certain requirements to silence the first amendment rights of one group in support of another?

From my pedestrian understanding of the constitution the First Amendment protects a broad spectrum of expression right up the point of being “personally incendiary or threatening”.  There are books, dissertations and case studies covering all the situations where this protection does and does not apply. The current question is whether it can protect someone from artistically expressing things they don’t agree with and what level of artistic expression a typical business owner can claim.  The judges were looking for a clear demarcation from the attorneys in the Colorado case for how to define professional artistic expression so that every individual does not end up making up their own guidelines.

The ruling on the case will influence how companies are expected to do business in the future, which is great, but a part of me still thinks a business should have the freedom to shoot themselves in the foot if they choose to.  If they want to knowingly alienate a segment of their customer base and consequently suffer bad yelp reviews they should have the opportunity to do so.  Alternatively, they could follow the example of local Freeport Bakery that, a couple of years back, willingly accepted a request to replace their popular Barbie Cake with a flamboyant Ken Cake complete with a finely crafted dress of pink buttercream.  Rather than bend to the initial negative feedback on social media the bakery stood behind their spirit of inclusion and eventually enjoyed more popularity and appreciation for their convictions.  (https://freeportbakery.com/ken-doll-cake/)

Putting legal matters aside, though smart shoppers should also be able to manage their own expectations of the marketplace.  Everyone knows that some stores better cater to specialty needs than others.  You wouldn’t order a taco at Pizza Hut.  You wouldn’t ask for the men’s department at Victoria’s Secret and you wouldn’t expect a Christian bookstore to have an ample section on erotica.  Simply put, a business should know their target audience just as that audience should have some knowledge of the businesses they target.  With a combination of free will and free Google searches we have the ability to find diverse options in all categories.  As much as we might want to support small local businesses there are other resources available out there is our vast, globally connected economy.  Celebrate the individuals doing what they love and find the best match for what you’re looking for.  Chances are a voluntary shop owner will provide you with much better service than one having a sharp square peg shoved up their smooth round hole.