Just as we determine people’s character by assessing their actions, the best way to evaluate the wisdom and purpose of a law is by considering its real-world effects. This month, laws adding sexual orientation to public-accommodation nondiscrimination statutes showed their true colors, and the picture wasn’t pretty.
The Washington Supreme Court punished a 72-year-old grandmother named Barronelle Stutzman for declining to create custom floral arrangements to celebrate a longtime customer’s same-sex wedding. One of the worst parts about the court’s decision is its heavy-handedness: It found Barronelle personally liable and threatens to bankrupt her by requiring that she pay hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not more) to the American Civil Liberties Union attorneys who filed suit against her.
This Isn’t About Serving Gay People
Many proponents of these sexual-orientation laws say they’re needed to ensure that businesses do not turn away customers because they identify as gay. This implies no business owner who serves gays and lesbians will be punished. But Barronelle’s case proves that this isn’t true.
Barronelle happily serves everyone in her community, including LGBT citizens. In fact, she had served Rob Ingersoll—the customer who asked her to create the arrangements for his same-sex wedding—for almost a decade. Barronelle built a friendship with Rob, and even though he has sued and sought to bankrupt her, she continues to love him and wishes him the best to this very day.
Even though Barronelle gladly serves her LGBT neighbors, her opponents insist that she violates the law because she refuses to provide services for same-sex couples who are marrying. It isn’t accurate to say, however, that she refuses to serve those couples. She will sell premade arrangements or unarranged flowers for same-sex couples to use in their weddings. The sticking point for her is being required to use her artistic skills to create custom arrangements that celebrate same-sex marriages.
But according to the Washington Supreme Court’s decision, sexual-orientation laws do not just require business owners like Barronelle to serve same-sex couples who are marrying; creative professionals must actually make artwork (in Barronelle’s case, living sculptures) that celebrate those unions as marriages.
Barronelle’s Beliefs Are ‘in Good Faith’
Worse yet, sexual-orientation laws are designed to harshly affect people like Barronelle. They declare that individuals who distinguish same-sex marriage from man-woman marriage are engaged in a form of unlawful discrimination akin to racist actions, like refusing to provide service for an interracial wedding. They say that those who share Barronelle’s views about marriage—a group that includes millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims—should be treated like racists and ushered out of public life.
But it’s unfair and dishonest to equate Barronelle to a person who opposes interracial marriage. Indeed, existing Supreme Court case law already recognizes that they are not the same. When the high court struck down bans on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, it said that those laws reflected “invidious” discrimination grounded only in odious notions of “White Supremacy.” In contrast, when the Supreme Court redefined marriage to include same-sex couples in Obergefell v. Hodges, the justices recognized that the belief that marriage is a gender-diverse union of husband and wife is based on “decent and honorable premises” and is held “in good faith by reasonable and sincere people.”
That belief is honorable not only because it is shared by most adherents of the Abrahamic faiths, but also because it is rooted in a biologically based truth about humanity (that every child has a mother and a father) and a laudable social goal (that society should encourage mothers and fathers to jointly raise their children in a stable family unit). Opposition to interracial marriage, however, engrafts racist ideas (that marriages should not be racially diverse) onto the institution of marriage solely for racist ends (to keep people of different races from procreating with each other). Nothing but bigotry permeates that view.
Lest there be any doubt, history proves that there is no comparing these views on marriage. Interracial-marriage bans were an historical aberration. They were unheard of in most places at most times, and even in our country existed only in some states. (For example, six of the 13 original colonies never outlawed interracial marriage). On the other hand, the understanding that marriage is the union of husband and wife has prevailed throughout all of human history until approximately 15 years ago. Its ubiquity spanned the globe and reached across cultures, including cultures that predated or were otherwise unfamiliar with Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Racism and Freedom of Conscience Are Not the Same
Given the stark differences between these views on marriage, it is wrong for the government to treat their adherents the same. To be sure, the government may restrict many public actions rooted in invidious racism, but the government has no legitimate interest in punishing people who peacefully live out the timeless belief that marriage is a gender-diverse union. By failing to distinguish between these two very different things, sexual-orientation laws are built on a flawed foundation and will continually produce unjust outcomes.
Barronelle’s story is a case in point and shows us what an unjust law looks like. It punishes conscientious individuals who love and serve all people but cannot create art celebrating a particular event, and it punishes them by threatening to strip their life savings and home. It also equates “decent and honorable” beliefs with racism, driving the “reasonable and sincere people” who hold those beliefs to the margins of society.
How many more cases like Barronelle’s will it take until good people from all walks of life begin to speak up and oppose the source of these grave injustices?