Forcing people to bake for you is a bad idea

A new legal fight over a bakery's refusal to make a cake supporting marriage equality

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 7, 2014 7:19PM (EST)

         (<a href=''>Mincemeat</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Mincemeat via Shutterstock)

Of all the battlegrounds in the fight for LGBT rights, who'd have imagined how many of them would turn out to be bakeries? In Northern Ireland this week, Ashers Baking Co. has become just the latest sweet shop to face a serious backlash – and potential legal ramifications – for refusing to make a cake in support of marriage equality.

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has reportedly contacted the bakery on behalf of a gay rights activist and politician customer whose request for a Bert and Ernie-themed cake was refused. The letter says the owners are in violation of anti-discrimination laws, and furthermore that "If it does not offer compensation within seven days, it will face legal action."

As marriage equality has taken hold across the world, similar stories have played out elsewhere. Earlier this year, a Colorado judge ordered a Lakewood bakery to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples, following a ruling that the bakery had violated a gay couple's civil rights when it refused to do so. An Oregon bakery found itself in a similar state this year after "substantial evidence" was presented that the owners had violated the Oregon Equality Act of 2007 when it likewise turned down a lesbian couple's request for a wedding cake.

I am totally in favor of posting a hilarious review on Yelp of a bakery that doesn’t want to do business with The Gays. If you literally tell customers that they're "abominations to the Lord," I want the weight of Internet mockery to come down upon you. If you as a business owner believe it's a wise idea to cut yourself off from a thriving, loyal client base, hey, it's your funeral. Yet I worry about the implications of legally enforcing anti-discrimination rules in this particular manner.

I get that these issues, looked at in certain lights, seem very clear-cut. What would happen if a baker refused to make a cake for a mixed race couple? What if a cake shop tried to hide behind religion as an excuse for not serving women? I understand that we have had to fight, at various points in our history, for some individuals to have the same rights to service as everybody else. But I also think there's a difference between having someone sit at your counter and taking someone on as a client. These particular cases aren't about bakeries refusing to hire a gay person, or even sell a gay person any of their other wares. It's about being contracted for a very specific job. And that to me is where it can get muddy.

As an independent contractor, I have certainly exercised my right to turn down writing jobs from businesses and individuals I, for personal and political reasons, refuse to work with. Because I'm not some narrow-minded bigot, my reasons tend to be of a different nature than those of a Christian-owned bakery. But suppose I was a baker. And suppose I didn't want to make a cake that had a message that was offensive to me or contrary to my beliefs. If I want to fight for the right to say no to that customer, I have to consider that someone else has the right to say no to another. I have to consider that the reality of the world is that there are people whose religious beliefs really do make it hard for them right now to stand with marriage equality. I wish for them to become more open and tolerant and loving, and soon, but I don't see how forcing them to make wedding cakes is necessarily going to do it. I can be grateful that we live in a world with enough bakeries that are more than happy to accommodate loving couples celebrating their weddings, right now. And I'd much rather work on supporting those businesses than gunning for the others.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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