The second decade of the twenty-first century may go down in history as the time of the “cake wars”: fundamentalist Christians think that the only problem with declaring unfettered religious freedom in the business world is that same-sex couples would be denied wedding cakes. And maybe a few flowers and a bit of pizza too. The whole rumor started after Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a Gresham (OR) bakery, refused to fill an order for a wedding cake from a lesbian couple. Although the couple did not sue, they filed a complaint with the state of Oregon. An administrative law judge declared that Sweet Cakes’ action was discriminatory and allowed the Bureau of Labor and Industries to impose a fine of up to $150,000.
The firestorm swept across the country after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill into law that allowed anyone to deny any service or product to anyone else because of declared religious beliefs. The final section of the law stated that “there is not a higher protection offered by the state than the person’s protection of a person’s right to religious belief.”
Hundreds of business leaders, sports figures, celebrities, Christian groups, and almost a dozen cities and states—even NACAR–threatened to boycott Indiana because of the new law. The religious right, however, fought back. “Cake is speech,” Indiana pastor Tim Overton said on NPR. He followed that up by saying that no one would use any Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to deny anyone anything except flowers and wedding cakes. Just because people can do it, they probably wouldn’t.
Worse than this mistaken belief is the downright misconceptions of RFRAs throughout the nation. The federal law was passed for religious minorities in 1993 after an American Indian was fired because of his religious use of peyote. After fundamentalist Christians felt threatened by marriage equality, 19 states jumped on the bandwagon with state RFRAs. Although conservatives claimed that Indiana’s law was patterned after the federal one, it granted far more rights on the basis of “religious liberty.” The law that Pence originally granted “religious rights” to any person or company if those religious objectors had a “substantial ownership,” not even majority control. Also, the government does not need to be a party to case, geometrically increasing the number of lawsuits possible. When some legislators tried to add an amendment to block the law’s use for discrimination, the majority refused, acknowledging that they wanted to use it for discrimination, allowing majority religions the control.
Other conservatives argued that the new Indiana law was no problem because the state had no protections for LGBT people. Although they are correct about the state, various municipalities throughout Indiana had anti-discrimination ordinances which were then negated by the new state law.
Exactly one week after Pence signed the law and subsequently declared that he didn’t want to change the law, he signed a new bill last week that stopped people from using the first law from discriminating to against LGBT people. The fix to Indiana’s discriminatory overreach, designed to mollify protesters, was still not satisfactory, at least to some businesses. “Our position is that this ‘fix’ is insufficient,” Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle said. “There was not a repeal of RFRA and no end to discrimination of homosexuals in Indiana. Employers in most of the state of Indiana can fire a person simply for being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning. That’s just not right and that’s the real issue here.” That’s from a man who led the campaign of Pence’s GOP predecessor.
Arkansas passed a watered down religious belief bill that lacks non-discrimination protections. It can still be used against people of color, minority faiths, women, and anyone else with references in the bible. It is also binding for the entire state because Arkansas passed a law in February that prohibits anti-discrimination ordinances to protect LGBT people in any of the state’s municipalities.
North Carolina is lukewarm about a bill that goes farther than Indiana’s law. Unlike 17 RFRAs in the country, it states that obeying the law is a “burden” to their religious liberty, not a “substantial burden.” Even Arkansas included the term “substantial.” North Carolina added that there must be a “governmental interest of the highest magnitude” to justify overriding religious beliefs. Unworried about the bill’s effect on people, state House Speaker Tim Moore said he wants to know how such a law would “improve North Carolina’s brand.” He also wants “to make sure we don’t harm our brand.”
Eight other states are considering the creation or alteration of RFRAs.
Before the uproar about the Indiana law, most people believed that LGBT people faced no discrimination in lodging, renting, hiring, etc. across the nation. Indiana’s law forced that information out into the open. Now their only justification is to say that those who face discrimination are not “tolerant” or that LGBT people make a “choice” to face this discrimination.
Conservatives who wail about their lack of rights try to punish pro-LGBT businesses. Former Arizona TV evangelist Joshua Feuerstein called Cut the Cake in Longwood (FL) to order a cake that stated, “We do not support gay marriage.” Bakery owner Sharon Haller thought it was an April Fool’s joke and told him no. Feuerstein posted a recording of the telephone call on YouTube, and Haller received death threats. Her business came to a halt until people posted positive comments on her Facebook page. Haller could prosecute Feuerstein. Sarasota lawyer Andrea Flynn Mogensen said Florida law requires all parties to consent before recording a telephone conversation. Violation is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies determined that a Denver bakery did nothing wrong when the owner refused to write “God hates gays” on a cake because the message on the cakes would be “derogatory.” Bill Jack wanted a cake showing two groomsmen with a red “x” over them and messages about homosexuality being a sin. There was no discrimination because Silva would have responded to any other customer in the same way.
Bigotry is becoming a cottage industry across the nation. Memories Pizza in Walkerton announced that it would not cater any gay weddings, despite the fact that they have never been asked to do so. The owner garnered not only the free publicity that she wanted but also a large donation for a GoFundMe account. The irony is that half the $842,500 that she received will go to the government in the form of taxes; conservatives who hate the government are giving it a nice little chunk of money. A florist in Washington, fined $1,000 for not serving a lesbian couple, has received $90,000.
David Brooks, columnist for the supposedly liberal New York Times, criticized LGBT people for not using politeness and “gentle persuasion” until society decides to grant same-sex rights. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields agreed with Brooks on PBS News Hour last Friday on a panel that has featured contrasting viewpoints before the Koch brothers started massive funding of public television. They agreed it ws acceptable to deny services, employment, etc.—in short, fairness—to LGBT people until society voluntarily changes its mind with no impetus. Shields said that the question of religious liberty has been “lost” in the debate over gay rights. Michael Hulshof-Schmidt wrote, “[This position] puts the blame on the victims, wondering why we have to push so hard to make ourselves heard.”
Brooks and Shields forgot to ask the evangelical Christians to develop this “politeness.” In fact, fundamentalists are more of a minority in approval ratings than the LGBT community. In a recent poll of likely voters, 53 percent responded favorably to LGBT people whereas only 42 percent had a favorable view of evangelical Christians. Eighteen percent had unfavorable views of LGBT people, and 28 percent were negative toward evangelical Christians.
People who want to wait until religious people are voluntarily willing to give LGBT rights neglect history. The people who sat waiting for service at Woolworth’s 55 years ago didn’t want a sandwich: they wanted fairness and equality. Approval rating of biracial marriage when it was legalized in 1967 was 20 percent compared to the 59 percent approval of same-sex marriage now when it’s still not recognized in the entire United States.
Fed up with his religion being defined by hate, Rev. Drew Ludwig, pastor at Buffalo’s (NY) Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, has organized the “Christian Cake Mob.” The group bakes cupcakes and hands them out near Allentown’s gay bars. People from all faiths are chipping into the effort that Ludwig posted on social media. Ludwig said he won’t be discriminating because they will also give cupcakes to straight people.