Wedding Cakes and Religious Pluralism

One of the first religious experiences I had as a teenager seeking a spiritual teenager was attending a Reform Jewish temple in St. Joseph, Missouri. The temple’s members were mainly elderly people, steeped not only in Jewish religious memory but also in memories of the local community’s past. The first time I attended the temple, one of its members told a story, over cake and punch, of a time in the 1940s when the synagogue was attended by a then-famous entertainer named Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Mr. Anderson, an African-American, was part of the cast of the Jack Benny radio program and had come to town as part of a tour promoting it. The nicest hotel in town, the Hotel Robidoux, had refused him a room because of his race. A trained monkey was traveling with the tour, and the Hotel Robidoux apparently had no objections to the monkey staying in the hotel—just to a man whose skin happened to be black.

In a weird way, the story seems so simple, the injustice so flagrant that no enlightened person could defend the hotel’s acts. Moreover, the harm done to Mr. Anderson, not just emotionally but also materially, was easy to understand. In the days when African-Americans were so uncertain of being able to access basic services like hotel rooms when they traveled that a special travel guide existed to guide them to black-owned or at least nondiscriminatory businesses, it was easy to identify the injustice that must be blotted out.

When I read of recent efforts by some states to pass “religious liberty” laws upholding the rights of wedding vendors to refuse services on religious grounds, I am almost nostalgic for that kind of simplicity, because the questions arising from controversies over recently-passed or proposed religious liberty laws are not nearly as black-and-white. In attempting to establish my own views, it also does not help that several different identities pull me in different directions. As a gay man, I am appalled by the idea of a business refusing service to someone because of sexual orientation and sympathize with gay and lesbian couples who have sued wedding vendors who deny them service. As a Jew, however, I find myself divided. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” is, for some Jews, the most important mitzah (commandment) in the whole Torah. But other aspects of Jewish tradition—not just the verses in Leviticus and elsewhere that have traditionally been used to justify anti-gay attitudes in Judaism—take me in a different direction. Halakha (traditional Jewish law) considers marriage between Jews and non-Jews not merely to be religiously proscribed but null and void. Should American law require a kosher baker to provide services to interfaith weddings, against the dictates of faith and conscience, or a Christian bookstore to sell Bibles to someone who announces his intention to burn them? Committed religious pluralists, regardless of faith, would probably say no. Where should the line be drawn, and who gets to say? And what do we do when someone claims religion as a reason to deny someone service?

Well, in one sense, of course, the answer is our elected officials and the judiciary, who get to decide what constitutes a public accommodation and whether Hobby Lobby has to pay for its female employees’ birth control pill or a baker has to provide a gay wedding cake. In another sense, however, the answer is in us. Solutions to questions like this may lie in deepening our religious literacy, in understanding why a particular vendor may have religious objections to providing a product or service a customer wants. It would also go a long way in helping the public to understand that religious conscience is not always, or even usually, a smokescreen for bigotry of the kind that denied Rochester Anderson a hotel room. One of the greatest problems caused by the American public’s long slide into religious illiteracy is its tendency to give many people the impression that religion is or ought to be something akin to a hobby—something one does for an hour or two on Sunday morning but without consequences for how one lives in the outside world. For many believers, whatever their faith, “religious activity” may well encompass such seemingly profane activities as baking and selling cakes. This is perhaps the most important lesson to come out of the debate over “religious liberty” laws. Whether it is one the public will learn remains to be seen.

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2 thoughts on “Wedding Cakes and Religious Pluralism

  1. Your raise some great questions in this post. At what cost do you affirm someone’s tradition, and where is the line between promoting pluralism and actively fighting groups that push towards increasingly exclusivist beliefs. I too, think that religious conscience is not a smokescreen for bigotry, but at what point do you label things what they are, and at what point do you continue affirming that belief because of a pluralist ethos. This is what I think is so tricky about interfaith work. How do you welcome those to the table and give equal voice to those who don’t want to be there, and who staunchly oppose interfaith efforts?

  2. Your point about religious illiteracy is dead-on. A scenario I ponder is this—If someone walked into my bakery and tried to order a cake in Spanish (because they speak only Spanish) and I could not serve them (because I do not speak Spanish), could they sue me for discriminatorily refusing them service?

    Most people in our society, I think, would say no; I was simply unable to serve them because the knowledge I held was inadequate. The fact that our society accepts it as an objective barrier to action when someone lacks an understanding of a language that would enable them to use it with speakers of that language, but sees people as simply being obstinate when they lack an understanding of a religious doctrine that would allow them to apply it inclusively with the people it concerns, highlights how trivial religion is now seen as being. Of course, people can change their doctrinal understandings, just as they can learn a new language, but they can’t simply set them aside.

    I oppose all discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but I can’t fight it with law (except in the case of public officials, who can’t refuse services to people whose taxes pay their salaries; they are obligated to resign if they cannot perform those duties). What I can do is refuse to be a member of churches and other organizations that discriminate against LGBT people and refuse to give my money to businesses that do the same. What I can also do is to engage issues of theology and interpretation that underlie discriminatory attitudes, and argue in favor of a more inclusive, more humane, and ultimately more human reading of sacred text.

    That, though, requires religious literacy and, in the meantime, an illiterate population finds it easier to stamp out by the force of law what it doesn’t understand well enough to overcome with the force of reason.

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