David Brooks does his kumbaya business on gay rights, wedding cakes, and not making a scene.
Five years ago, Charlie Craig and David Mullins walked into a bakery in a strip mall in Lakewood, Colo., to ask about a cake for their wedding. The baker, Jack Phillips, replied: “I’ll make you birthday cakes, shower cakes, cookies, brownies. I just can’t make a cake for a same-sex wedding.”
As Adam Liptak of The Times reported, Phillips is a Christian and believes that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. Phillips is not trying to restrict gay marriage or gay rights; he’s simply asking not to be forced to take part.
Craig and Mullins were understandably upset. As Mullins told Liptak, “We were mortified and just felt degraded.” Nobody likes to be refused service just because of who they essentially are. In a just society people are not discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
At this point, Craig and Mullins had two possible courses of action, the neighborly and the legal.
The neighborly course would have been to use this situation as a community-building moment. That means understanding the concrete circumstance they were in.
First, it’s just a cake. It’s not like they were being denied a home or a job, or a wedding. A cake looks good in magazines, but it’s not an important thing in a marriage. Second, Phillips’s opinion is not a strange opinion. Barack Obama was elected president arguing that a marriage was between a man and a woman. Most good-hearted Americans believed this until a few years ago. Third, the tide of opinion is quickly swinging in favor of gay marriage. Its advocates have every cause to feel confident, patient and secure.
Okay, let me stop you right there. Would you have told Rosa Parks “It’s just a seat on a bus”? It’s not just a cake. It’s a symbol of Mr. Phillips’ purposeful disregard for the laws of his state, which prohibit discrimination in public accommodation. That includes baking a cake. So Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullin had every right to take him to court.
Given that context, the neighborly approach would be to say: “Fine, we won’t compel you to do something you believe violates your sacred principles. But we would like to hire you to bake other cakes for us. We would like to invite you into our home for dinner and bake with you, so you can see our marital love, and so we can understand your values. You still may not agree with us, after all this, but at least we’ll understand each other better and we can live more fully in our community.”
The legal course, by contrast, was to take the problem out of the neighborhood and throw it into the court system. The legal course has some advantages. You can use state power, ultimately the barrel of a gun, to compel people to do what you think is right. There are clearly many cases in which the legal course is the right response (Brown v. Board of Education).
But the legal course has some disadvantages. It is inherently adversarial. It takes what could be a conversation and turns it into a confrontation. It is dehumanizing. It ends persuasion and relies on the threat of state coercion. It is elitist. It takes a situation that could be addressed concretely on the ground and throws it up, as this one now has been, to the Supreme Court, where it will be decided by a group of Harvard and Yale law grads.
And I’m sure that if the students at Little Rock in 1957 had said, “So you don’t want us in your school? Well, come on over and let us show you that we’re just folks; we’ll make a nice dinner and sit on the front porch and watch the lightning bugs and you’ll see that we’re no different than you,” Central High would still be segregated, the buses in Birmingham would have back seats for coloreds, and we’d still be hearing how our nation would evolve to natural integration where everyone would get along without all that outside agitation and messy lawsuits.
It’s not just a cake. It’s not about baking a cake. It’s not about the freedom of religion, either, because the right to exercise your religious beliefs has to end when it tramples the rights of others to live their lives without being made to feel as if they are somehow less than the rest of society. If you don’t want to bake a cake for gay people, then don’t open a bakery that is licensed by the state to serve the public.
And if you think that baking a cake for a couple somehow demeans or diminishes your faith, then perhaps you should take the time to re-examine your faith.
Readers of this column know that I fervently support gay marriage, but I don’t think bakers like Jack Phillips are best brought along by the iron fist of the state. I don’t think the fabric of this country will be repaired through the angry confrontation of lawyers. In this specific situation, the complex art of neighborliness is our best way forward.
Then perhaps Mr. Phillips would be well-advised to remember the biblical admonishment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And bake the cake.