It’s not about the Wedding Cake—Discrimination in Public Accommodations


Civil rights activists being harassed for sitting at a lunch counter

Utah recently passed a bill that protects LGBT people against discrimination in employment and housing. These protections are extremely important, and now it is vital to start looking at the third category, public accommodations.

Many states and localities have these protection already in place. However, there has been a backlash due to some highly publicized cases, most notably the refusal of a bakery to bake a wedding cake for a same sex wedding.

Let’s start by considering some fictional, but realistic scenarios that are actually a better showcase of why these kinds of protections are relevant:

—Suppose you are traveling in a remote region such as the Arizona/Utah border. Suppose that your car breaks down during a winter drive. Suppose there is one motel there, and to avoid sleeping in your car in the cold, you ask for a room at the motel.  Suppose the motel owners are FLDS and they refuse to allow you there because  you are in a mixed race marriage and they feel that entering a mixed race marriage is sinful (as is the case in the FLDS religion). You are thus stuck sleeping in your car in the cold.

—Consider the same scenario in the bible belt where Mormonism is considered a cult. Suppose that they motel refuses you respite when they realize that you are a Mormon.

—Suppose the next day you are trying to get your car fixed so you can continue your journey.  There is a car repair in town, but once again, they refuse you service because of discrimination. Your only solution is to pay for an expensive tow truck to come and bring your car to the next city where you can get your car repaired without discrimination.

—Suppose you live in a beautiful small town. That town has one grocery store. Suppose that this grocery store refuses to give you service because of discrimination. You are compelled to drive 45 minutes to the next town to shop for groceries. Suppose that this same small town only has one plumber, and your pipes break. The plumber refuses service, so you have to pay a plumber to travel all the way from another town to give you a more expensive service, and you have to wait until he/she is available to travel.

—Suppose there is an ice cream store in your neighborhood. You have an 8-year old child and all of his/her friends talk about how much they love that ice cream. Suppose you take your child to get an ice cream there, but you are refused service because of your race, gender, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.  Your child is also not allowed to attend the camp that all of his/her friends are attending, nor take the dance classes or art classes that his/her friends are taking. Even your pediatrician refuses to treat your child (as recently happened in Michigan to a same-sex couple and their child).

—Suppose there is an excellent health club that you want to join and it is the only one in your town that offers yoga classes, and yoga has been the only effective way for you to control your back pain.They refuse to let you join because of discrimination. The only other health club in town is of very low quality, and has no yoga classes.

—Suppose you go out to a nice dinner with a loved one. You are seated, and your order is taken, but then they decide they don’t want to serve you because of discrimination. A nice dinner with a loved one becomes a bitter and sad moment. Now suppose this happens on a regular basis, week after week, year after year.

A little history about discrimination in public accommodations. This kind of discrimination has long been used to marginalized groups that are out of favor to limit their mobility, limit their participation in society, and limit their advancement.

Prior to the civil rights movement, there was segregation in the South, and we all have seen the compelling images of young black activists sitting at a lunch counter at Woolworths and requesting service. They were not only refused service, but they were taunted, harassed, physically attacked and arrested.

So why was it important for them to sit at a restaurant if the restaurant didn’t want to serve them?  Wouldn’t they rather eat at a business that is happy to serve them?  If you take a close look it quickly becomes obvious why they needed access to all the services provided to the rest of the community.

Take transportation as an example. In the South at the time many gas stations refused to sell gasoline to a black person.  Black people who needed to travel by car or truck at the time had to plan very carefully and had to be informed in advance where they would be able to purchase gasoline or they would never arrive at their destination. Meanwhile the white people could just hit the road and be sure that there would be a gas station in the next town.

The fact that so many businesses refused service to black people also meant that those who did could get away with charging higher prices. So the poorest in the society had to pay higher prices for basic services. They often had to travel farther to buy basics such as food in stores that likely had poor selection of over-priced items.

They also had no chance of participating in the political process when meetings were being held in restaurants that would not allow them entry or clubs that they could not join.

These examples only scratch the surface of the difficulties that black people encountered due to discrimination in public accommodations. It was systematic, and it was a huge factor in their overall oppression.

Let’s take a look at a more recent example of how allowing discrimination in public accommodations can be problematic. In Minneapolis/St. Paul most of the taxi drivers are of Somali origin. Less than 10 years ago many of these Muslim taxi drivers started to refuse to transport people who were carrying alcohol. There were several cases where these taxi drivers picked people up at the airport and later realized that they had alcohol in their bags (likely purchased at the duty free shops). These people were kicked out of the taxis and were left abandoned. This is problematic anytime, but especially if it is late at night or during a Minnesota winter. The taxi-drivers argued that they were following their religion, but in the end, neither the public nor the government were interested in allowing discrimination based on Muslim beliefs. These taxi drivers were heavily fined, and there were no further incidents. It is obvious to most of us that taxi drivers should not be allowed to discriminate in this way. If they can’t offer their services to all, they need to choose a different vocation. However, what if it had been a majority religion discriminating against a minority? In Egypt they chose to slaughter all the pigs after the swine flu scare started in Mexico. This policy had more to do with oppressing the minority Christian community than any real public health benefit. Even though this is not an example of public accommodations, it does highlight how all societies are much quicker to protect the majority than the minority communities. Meanwhile, there are lots of examples of public accommodation problems in the Middle East where women are often refused any number of services simply because of their gender, and are thus completely dependent upon men in their family.

There is an alarming trend in our country and states have started passing laws specifically allowing discrimination for religious reasons. There is even one currently under consideration in Utah.  Meanwhile, there is no law prohibiting this kind of discrimination in public accommodations in Utah or in several other heavily Mormon states. I am hoping that someday church leaders will speak out in favor of these kinds of protections as well, and that anti-discrimination protections soon become well established nationwide for housing, employment AND public accommodations.

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