The United States Supreme Court yesterday sided with a Colorado baker who claimed his First Amendment religious freedoms were impinged by a same-sex couple hoping he’d bake them a wedding cake.
Locally, bakers in San Francisco and, specifically, the Mission, told Mission Local that they’re not itching to exercise a newfound right to claim their religious beliefs enable them to discriminate against customers. Which is good, because that’s not what the Court’s decision yesterday enabled.
“My conclusion is, this is a case that the result will virtually never be used again in any place,” said UC Berkeley law professor Jesse Choper. “This decision came very specifically on the facts of the case.” Specifically, members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not display the “neutral and respectful consideration” plaintiff Jack Phillips was due, per the decision penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy and signed onto by six other judges. Those commissioners “endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, implying that religious beliefs and persons are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community.”
So, this case did not constitute the Warriors vs. Cavaliers showdown between First Amendment freedom-of-religion rights and the civil rights of a protected class that observers anticipated, hoped and feared. Rather, the ostensibly inappropriate commentary of state commissioners has essentially short-circuited the case, leaving the underlying issues unresolved. Further test cases await.
“It sidesteps the main issues we’ve been focused on and leaves them for another day,” confirms Jenny Pizer, the law and policy director for Lambda Legal. “There are some reassuring parts of today’s decision, and some that are very worrying.”
On the plus side, Pizer says, Kennedy’s decision “rejects the idea that people can evoke religion and get a free pass” to discriminate. But Kennedy and the seven-justice majority “express a lot of concern” for the viewpoints of people like Phillips. “We have argued in our brief and in similar cases that if you are choosing to operate a business that interacts with the general public, you have to offer the same services to everybody. If you can’t offer it to everyone because of religious or other beliefs, you should not be in that business.”
This view matches the opinion of Gwyneth Borden, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “The choice by Jack Phillips strikes me as being the opposite of what the hospitality industry is all about,” she says. “San Francisco is a place of inclusion and ideas. If you don’t feel that way, you shouldn’t open up a business here.”
Left unsaid is that discriminatory behavior, or even the perception of discriminatory behavior, would not play well in this city. The unfortunately named Mexican restaurant Bandidos opted to change its name to Hecho after an angry backlash. Local’s Corner closed following accusations that Latino guests were discriminated against by a staffer.
Samson Yohannes, a cooperative baker at Arizmendi on Valencia, says he feels his profession has been denigrated by this Supreme Court case. “We would never refuse anyone because of sexual orientation or any preference they have,” he says. “We’d only refuse someone based on how they treat someone here. Treating people with respect and being inclusive is, by definition, who we are.”
Down the road, the proprietor of Kings Bakery Cafe — who declined to give us his full name — said he would make a cake for anyone. But not for free.
“Whoever comes to my store, I will make the cake for him or her — so long as he pays!” says the baker. “We are in business, man. We don’t care about religion. Can you pay me? That is what we care about.”