“When it comes down to it, most of us realize the cake a Christian baker refuses to bake for a gay couple isn’t just a cake—it stands for so much more.”
or a movement that began almost 50 years ago in the anger and violence of the Stonewall riots, last Monday’s Supreme Court decision about a gay couple’s wedding cake might feel a little paltry by comparison at first. A cake’s just a cake—right?
To a certain stripe of social conservative, of course, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Doomsayers online spread images of rainbow guns pointed at the back of bowed heads, ominously captioned “Gay Rights” and “Bake the F###### Cake, Bigot.” Baking a cake is listed after “tolerance” and “equality” as just the latest in a series of ridiculous requests from LGBT Americans—and one from which the Supreme Court obligingly rescued social conservatives.
On the other hand, cooler, more libertarian heads on the right claim to have their own reasons for making much ado about LGBT couples’ nuptial preparations. Even self-described libertarians like Pierre-Guy Veer, who is also gay, fear the consequences of coerced non-discrimination in public services, making comparisons to black bakers forced to make Confederate cakes and Jews forced to provide their customers with desserts celebrating Nazism.
Fortunately for black and Jewish bakers, the moral and legal conundrums these examples present are mostly confined to right-leaning writers’ imaginative think pieces. And fortunately for conservative Christian bakers, LGBT couples have yet to propose enslaving them or rounding them up and putting them in concentration camps.
One threat to domestic tranquility, the cake conundrum in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission does seem to pose, however, that it has less to do with social conservatives’ reluctance to acknowledge gay people’s existence than with maintaining the basic level of respect required to maintain civil society. Writing for the Court’s opinion, Justice Kennedy acknowledged that necessity in another facet of the case—because of “religious hostility on the part of the State itself” toward the Christian baker accused of discrimination, the Colorado commission’s judgment was rendered moot.
The rationale behind this opinion is an indispensable one for the survival of a society such as ours that emphasizes classically liberal civic virtues. In a pluralistic society with freedom of thought and freedom of belief, it’s inevitable different people will come to different conclusions about the world around them. So when a branch of a state’s government appears to take a prejudicial attitude toward people of a certain mindset — including conservative Christians who spuriously believe the Bible prohibits them selling a cake to a gay couple—that can delegitimize the very basis of our liberal society itself.
The Supreme Court’s decision last week notably took a narrow focus on the details of this case, declining to make a ruling with broader implications for the culture wars raging around gay rights. But while the decision understandably shook LGBT Americans afraid that it might lend legitimacy to anti-gay discrimination, that’s not the end of the story. Simply put, anti-gay discrimination is just as destructive to a stable civil society as anti-religious animus from the state against conservative Christians—if not even more so.
When it comes down to it, most of us realize the cake a Christian baker refuses to bake for a gay couple isn’t just a cake—it stands for so much more. Discrimination in selling LGBT people seemingly innocuous items like a pastry for a wedding can lead by steps and bounds to much bigger problems. The incorrigible Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) provided ample illustration of that in a public speech last month, when he told assembled realtors from his Orange County district they should be able to refuse to sell a home to a gay couple on the basis of their sexuality.
It should be obvious that impeding gay Americans from conducting normal lives negatively affects their ability to fully participate in our liberal democracy. But even putting aside the egregious effects of material discrimination, the psychological impact of legal sanction for anti-gay bias in the public sphere alone is enough to erode one’s confidence in the respect for other people that underpins a stable society. When a baker refuses to make a cake for your wedding to someone of the same sex but jumps on the opportunity to do so for a “marriage” between two dogs, for example, it’s hard to see why you should even bother to participate in the society that tacitly supports them.
Treating other people with basic, human decency, of course, is something any number of social conservatives in 2018 will tell you is beyond the pale of decency, let alone an appropriate thing to ask for. But once you get over your tirade about PC culture, stop for a moment and consider how fundamental a building block of society that basic respect constitutes. If self-proclaimed “pro-family” conservatives can’t see why the policies they support are so harmful to that building block, perhaps they should reconsider how they describe their priorities.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court should remember that “religious hostility” can come from anyone—not just the state—and is often much more insidious than in Masterpiece Cakeshop. To create a truly valuable legal norm of respect for different groups in the pluralistic landscape of modern America, Kennedy and the court could start in the right direction by extending their concern for respectful interactions to the gay Americans who all too often are denied them.