Lydia Macy, 17, left, and Mira Gottlieb, 16, both of Berkeley, Calif., rally outside of the Supreme Court on the day of the hearing for the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin; caption amended by RNS)

On the cake case, David Brooks gets it wrong

(RNS) — Let me get this right: A baker, in violation of Colorado law, refuses to provide service to a gay couple that he provides to everyone else, and according to David Brooks, it’s the couple’s “bad” that they didn’t invite him to dinner?

I am a long time admirer of David Brooks and I look to him for a reasoned and well-articulated conservative perspective on public matters. But in his opinion piece about the Masterpiece Cake case before the Supreme Court, "How Not to Advance Gay Marriage," he is uncharacteristically naïve and gets it so, so wrong.

The gay couple should have taken the “neighborly course,” Brooks admonishes, inviting the baker to dinner in their home, letting him get to know them and giving them the chance to prove their “marital love” to him. Which begs the question: Who else in America needs to cook dinner for a vendor before earning the right to purchase their wares?

Were Mr. Brooks denied service at a lunch counter because he is white, would he then invite the owner to his home for dinner so that gradually, over time, the owner’s heart would be changed and white people like Mr. Brooks would be served after all? If that were the right approach to civil rights, African-Americans would still be looking for lunch.

After Brooks rightly notes that the plaintiffs were “understandably upset” and “felt degraded,” that “Nobody likes to be refused service just because of who they essentially are,” and “In a just society people are not discriminated against because of their sexual orientation,” he turns his back on what he’s just written. He argues Masterpiece Cake is not about discrimination based on “who they essentially are” but rather about the baker’s religious beliefs.

The Washington State Supreme Court, ruling on a similar case regarding a florist who refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding, explicitly wrote in its decision that providing flowers for a gay couple’s wedding no more advocated for gay marriage than providing flowers for a Muslim wedding endorsed Islam or providing flowers for an atheist couple’s wedding advocated for atheism.

But the most egregious assertion Brooks made is that “it’s just a cake. It’s not like they were being denied a home or a job, or a wedding.”

Is it possible that Mr. Brooks is unaware that in 29 states, one can be fired from a job for being gay and the employee has no protection and no recourse in the courts? In those same 29 states, one can be evicted from an apartment just for being gay. And as for the right to be married, we should note that in Alabama right now, someone poised to be elected to the United States Senate was the judge who tried his best to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

What these cases are about is DIGNITY. Systemic, societal dignity. Yes, the wedding cake might be obtained at a bakery down the street. But then again, African-Americans may have been able to find lunch at some other lunch counter down the street in the ‘60s. The principle at stake is whether or not gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people are going to be accorded the same public dignity that is available to everyone else — whether or not such treatment is commensurate with the personal opinions and even theologies of the vendors.

Let me be clear: If the baker refused to bake a wedding cake for anyone who is divorced and is getting remarried — because Jesus clearly said that that is adultery; if he refused to bake a wedding cake for any couple who does not give a 10 percent tithe to their church — as commanded in Scripture; if he refused to bake a wedding cake for a heterosexual couple who has been living together before marriage (fornication) — if the baker refused to bake wedding cakes for anyone he deemed to be sinful, I’d be supportive of him (although sinless customers might be few and far between).

But this baker is NOT asking the court to ensure his freedom of religion; he is actually asking the court to ensure and protect his right to discriminate. Mr. Brooks, this case is about much more than “just a cake.”

(Bishop Gene Robinson is the retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)