Nel's New Day

April 6, 2015

The ‘Cake Wars’

lego cakeThe 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.

Lee's graphicWorse 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.

After the Indiana fiasco, Georgia dropped its discrimination bill—for now. Montana, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming also defeated RFRAs.

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.


lee.s picture 2People 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.

cupcakeWhen is a cake not just a cake? When it’s used as a symbol to refuse service to anyone.

March 29, 2015

Conservatives Fight for Power through Claims of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence is even farther from a run for president after the media attention he received last week. After he signed into law the RFRA discrimination bill using religious belief as an excuse, Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle announced that his company has abandoned its expansion in Indianapolis that would hire an additional 1,000 employees. Oesterle isn’t some wide-eyed liberal: he directed GOP Mitch Daniels’ 2004 campaign for governor. Seattle has also joined San Francisco in not allowing work-related, city-funded travel to Indiana.

Is Pence truly confused about “the hostility that’s been directed at our state” or just trying to cover his bigoted actions? “I’ve been taken aback by the mischaracterizations from outside the state of Indiana about what is in this bill,” Pence said, indicating that he’s not prepared to be the president of the United States.

Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Pence avoided six questions about whether a merchant in Indiana could legally refuse to serve LGBT customers. One answer was that “this is not about discrimination, this is about empowering people to confront government overreach.” he said. Two questions needed only yes-or-no responses about whether state law permits legal discrimination against LGBT customers.

Chuck Todd, conservative host of Meet the Press, gave Pence a pass by concentrating on Hillary Clinton’s emails and waiting until the last five minutes to address the new Indiana law. Even more progressive Sam Stein of the Huffington Post seemed surprised—like Pence—that corporations thought the state should be boycotted.

While Pence waffled, an Indiana business owner, who prefered to be anonymous, bragged on the radio that he has already discriminated against gay and lesbian couples. He didn’t even claim a religious belief. Fortunately for Pence, the Fox network has his back. FOX News contributor Mike Gallagher compared LGBT people wanting service at restaurants to “Nazis” asking for hate-filled “Swastika signs” made for a “skinhead rally.” Pence and Fox will most likely defend the pending bill in Georgia that can legally permit domestic violence.

The Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is one of at least 35 bills moving through at least 19 state legislatures after Indiana passed its discriminatory RFRA. As with Indiana’s law, the bill would permit a wide variety of discrimination including bullying in schools.

The Georgia GOP legislators know that their bill is wrong because of the way that it was moved through the process. Sponsor state Senator Josh McKoon pushed it through the judiciary committee while opposing members were in the bathroom. Then he refused an amendment from a fellow Republican that would have specified that the “religious freedom” could not be used to discriminate against others. He didn’t even permit an amendment keeping religious belief from stopping child abuse. Speakers in favor of the bill were allowed far more time than those opposed to it, sometimes twice as much as allotted.

The RFRA passed the Senate on March 5 and moved to the State House with a 2-1 GOP majority. After an anti-discrimination amendment passed in its judiciary committee, conservatives tabled the bill, claiming that an anti-discrimination amendment defeats the purpose of the bill. According to conservatives, a religious freedom measure with an anti-discrimination provision is not a real religious freedom measure.

Blogger Eric Erickson slammed the man who proposed the amendment as “the man who wants to deny protection to Christian businesses.” Clearly, the religious freedom bill is freedom for only some religious people. Erickson may not be aware that Georgia’s RFRA permits Sharia law because it defines “exercise of religion” as any “practice or observance of religion, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.”

Tomorrow, conservatives plan an amendment, stating that the RFRA cannot be used to discriminate against anyone protected against state law. Georgia has no statewide civil rights law, no protected classes.

Legal commentators have surmised that the law would give a pass to spousal and child abusers if the husband or father has a religious pretext. The Christian Domestic Discipline Network offers a raft of rationales for “wife spanking,” and Proverbs 13:24 states, “He who spares his rod hates his son. But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.” Although Georgia has laws protecting child welfare, a court might determine that these laws are not the “least restrictive means” of protecting it. The new law can be a defense for assault and battery. Religious views may not completely stop an investigation into child-endangerment and child-abuse charges, but they can slow down its progress. Even conservative district attorneys have said that the bill would delay investigations and prosecutions of child abuse.

Even Mike Bowers, successful supporter of state anti-sodomy laws in the Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) opposes the proposed Georgia law. In an open letter, Bowers wrote that the law is “unequivocally an excuse to discriminate….[P]ermitting citizens to opt-out of laws because of a so-called burden on the exercise of religion in effect ‘would permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.’”

Pence is probably envious of the silence from Georgia’s business world, compared to eminent boycotts of Indiana. Only recently have some major corporations began to speak out although they rather weakly state that they “don’t support discrimination.” That includes responses from Home Depot and Atlanta Hawks. AmericasMart Atlanta, one of the world’s largest permanent wholesale trade centers, said that it doesn’t take public positions on pending legislation but they do welcome everyone.

Coca-Cola, Delta, Turner Broadcasting, the Atlanta Braves, and the Atlanta Falcons have not responded to questions about their positions although both Delta and Coca-Cola opposed an identical bill last year. Lawmakers may be blackmailing the companies. Another pending bill would eliminate Georgia’s tax subsidy on jet fuel in retribution for Delta CEO Richard Anderson’s recent history of weighing in on public affairs, including opposition to last year’s version of RFRA. Although he supported the fuel subsidy in the past, Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R), sponsor of the bill to eliminate the subsidy, said, “Will I more than happily take advantage of those who are tired of him chiming in to pass a piece of legislation? Absolutely.”

Businesses afraid of losing business conventions and tourism, however, are more openly opposing the RFRA. The executive board of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau issued a resolution “in opposition to the implementation of any legislation which could be used to potentially discriminate,” noting that the bill would “tarnish Atlanta’s reputation as one of the world’s most welcoming cities.” The resolution followed a letter to lawmakers last week stating, “This bill is unnecessary, divisive, and a distraction from the issues needed to advance Georgia.”

Local conferences possibly moving away from the state include the comic and fantasy convention Dragon Con, the American Society for Higher Education, American Academy of Religion, American Historical Association, German Studies Association, History of Science Society, Philosophy of Science Association, Society for Biblical Literature, and Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. The NCAA, which was “especially concerned” about the new Indiana law, is scheduling its 2019 convention in Atlanta.

Although 31 states, 18 of them since the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, have passed forms of RFRA, the most recent bills and Indiana’s law are far more radical. The federal law says that the government may not pass a law that “substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion,” but some businesses are claiming that they don’t have to meet the substantial burden test.

The state House in Kansas passed a bill allowing anyone to refuse to recognize same-sex couples or provide them with services on religious grounds without showing that it would substantially burden their ability to exercise their faith. In late February, the state Senate refused to take up the bill.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock wrote that the fight over extremist religious freedom is “ polarizing the country and endangering religious liberty more generally.” Extremists invited to Pence’s signing the Indiana law reflect how far to the religious right the law is:

  • Micah Clark, Head of the American Family Association of Indiana: Claims that “homosexuality has no societal benefit…and it’s individually destructive and dangerous.”
  • Curt Smith, President of Indiana Family Institute: Equates homosexuality with bestiality and adultery and said, “…I believe homosexuality is harmful to all, including society, and is against the teachings of the God of the Bible…” 
  • Eric Miller, Exec. Director of Advance America, Indiana’s leading anti-LGBT org.: Distributed fear flier falsely claiming that pastors could be jailed for preaching against homosexuality once same-sex marriage passes and  claims “[b]anning same-sex marriages and civil unions will prove to be the greatest moral battle of this generation.”

pence The RFRAs are not about protecting religious freedoms. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does that. It’s about power. The RFRAs are all about a select group of white Christian males, approximately one-fourth of the U.S. population, trying to renew their dominance over everyone else. These haters are destroying freedom of religion for everyone.

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