This week, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a landmark civil rights case out of Colorado that could have broad – and disastrous – national implications.
The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop LLC v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will ultimately decide whether someone can misuse the First Amendment as an excuse to discriminate.
There’s so much happening right now: the Roy Moore election in Alabama, the GOP tax scam bill, the pending demise of net neutrality, the continuing and deepening investigation of the president’s campaign for possible collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice, and the list goes on and on.
But the speed and horribleness of each new assault on the rule of law and even decency itself cannot be an excuse for inaction. In this time of awfulness, progressives are going to have to learn how to multitask.
There’s danger there. Some pundits have suggested that the Republicans in Washington were successful with taxes where they had failed with health care because there wasn’t a single, focused attack.
This summer’s health care debate was about taking health care away from tens of millions of people. The tax bill was about big corporations, the estate tax and 1 percenters, this deduction or that write off. There were too many targets. Too many opportunities to tweak something minor and claim victory.
I don’t think that’s correct. Nothing goes to the core of what it means to be a Republican than cutting taxes for people with a lot of money. It’s what they do. The opposition was loud and while the attacks might never have been as unified as they were with health care, they were consistent.
The tax bill stinks. It passed. But we still have a chance to raise our voices against it assuming it goes to a conference committee.
But we also have to make sure we don’t let other assaults on democratic values go unanswered, which takes us back to the case of wedding cake baker from Colorado.
In Maine and 18 other states, there are laws that don’t allow discrimination in public accommodations. That means that a business that is open to the public can’t refuse to serve someone based upon a number of criteria, including race, religion, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.
While most people agree that businesses shouldn’t discriminate, there can also be a bit of a disconnect. I’ll call it the “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” fallacy, though I bet there’s a better name.
We’ve all seen the signs that place conditions on services. If you’re not wearing shoes, you can’t come into the restaurant and buy French fries.
You might also see signs that suggest that the ownership reserves the right to refuse service for a variety of reasons. And, generally speaking, a lot of people are sympathetic to that idea. But that’s not what this case is about.
In the Colorado case, a wedding cake baker refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. He said that doing so would violate his First Amendment rights and his sincerely held religious beliefs.
It’s against the law in Colorado to discriminate against someone. If your business is open to the public, then you have to provide the same services to everyone. You can’t say, “we don’t serve your kind.”
During the Civil Rights era, we heard many of the same types of arguments used to defend discrimination. Segregationists pointed to the Bible to justify separate water fountains or to deny legal status to interracial couples.
Then, like now, it was an effort to wrap the ugliness of discrimination in a shroud of respectability. As the NAACP writes in its brief, the court has forcefully rejected “arguments that religious beliefs could justify legal discrimination.”
The next two weeks are critical for fair taxes and net neutrality. No doubt.
But we can’t let efforts to write discrimination into the US Constitution go unnoticed. We must keep our eyes open to everything that’s happening and push back against it all.
There need not be a conflict between one person’s religious beliefs and the rights of other people. We are all free to worship and believe as we want.
The conflict is when those beliefs hurt someone else. None of us have that right.
My dad used to say – and I’m sure others did too – that your rights end where the other guy’s nose begins.
The bedrock principles of the US Constitution are about protecting people as individuals, not empowering the majority to overwhelm the minority.
Scrape off the First Amendment frosting and the Masterpiece Cakeshop case isn’t about cakes at all. It’s about discrimination and about rolling back the progress that we have made as a country and undermining non-discrimination laws around the country.