The shouts of “government tyranny” and “religious persecution” by the religious rightwing regarding the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the Colorado Christian baker’s case are hyperbolic nonsense. Some right-wingers say, “only a simpleton doesn’t understand the complexity of this issue.” This is nonsense too.
The Court’s decision is actually not that complex – though it does require having a basic understanding of constitutional law. The decision is based on this legal precedent: if you operate a business that serves the public, you cannot discriminate based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. The legal precedent was hashed out during the long civil rights struggle to overcome the racial discrimination that had plagued this country since its birth. That we have to keep hashing this out over different kinds of discrimination within the public realm is the very sad part.
The other aspect of this case that creates confusion is the lack of understanding important distinctions. Today’s discourse, from both the left and right, is often riddled with distinction-less talking points.
Making distinctions is an integral part of speech, and we would relegate ourselves to living in a meaningless and incoherent world without making important distinctions. Thus, and unfortunately, the distinction-less discourse surrounding the recent Colorado Supreme Court decision is creating confusion and adding fire to the already heated partisan divide in America.
So what are the important distinctions that need to be made? And how might it help clear up some confusion?
When discussing political issues, like this wedding cake case, it is important that we first understand the distinctions between “the three realms of human life – the political, the social, and the private.” The notion of the three realms of life was an issue that political theorist Hannah Arendt raised throughout her work. She argued that humans throughout the ages have, more or less, lived and interacted between these three realms.
***all remaining quotes below are from Arendt’s writings.
The private realm is our homes, and all of our private relationships with “personal friends and those we love.” In this realm we have the four protective walls of our homes to shelter us and allow us to be free from the demands of the political and social world. In the realm of privacy we are “ruled neither by equality nor by discrimination, but by exclusiveness” and usually guided by our familial relationships.
The political (or public) realm is the place where the laws are made and administered. It is also the market place where people go to sell their goods, offer their skills to the public, or buy goods and services. Now, some might protest that the marketplace is of the private realm. However, to this assertion I would add (and the Courts have long agreed) that private businesses that offer public services, “though not strictly in the political realm… are clearly in the public domain where [people should be treated] equal.”
As such, discrimination in the public realm should not exist, and equality for all is supposed to be a political right that is guaranteed and protected.
“For equality not only has its origin in the body politic; its validity is clearly retracted to the political realm. Only there are we all equals”
The social realm is “that curious, somewhat hybrid realm between the political and the private realm in which, since the beginning of the modern age, most [people] have spent the greater part of their lives… For each time we leave the four protective walls of our private homes and cross over the threshold into the public world, we enter first, not the political realm of equality, but the social sphere.” And now with the advent of the Internet, we can enter into, and engage with, the social realm from the comfort of our homes too.
In the social realm, discrimination is a given and will always exist. And “once we have entered [the social realm], we become subject to the old adage of ‘like attracts like.'” In this realm we all “discriminate against each other, along lines of profession, income, ethnic origin,” religion, and so on. These kinds of discrimination are what free association is all about.
For example: as a golfer I prefer to spend time with other golfer friends because of our common interests. My love of the game of golf is part of my personal identity, and I enjoy being around others who enjoy it as well. I would be bored to tears if I had to hang out everyday with people who only wanted to talk about, say, the latest Hollywood gossip, or only watch morning soap operas. On the flip side, those who love soap operas would be bored to tears if they had to endure watching golf, or endless talk of golf.
In other words, we discriminate when we choose to freely associate with the people we are attracted to through our common interests. Any attempt to abolish this kind of discrimination would be to live in a tyrannical world. Thus with this understanding of the distinction between these three realms we can now move into (hopefully) understanding how the distinction-less discourse surrounding the wedding cake issue is causing confusion and fueling the heated partisan divide.
“The question is not how to abolish discrimination, but how to keep it confined within the social sphere, where it is legitimate, and prevent its trespassing on the political and the personal sphere, where it is destructive.”
The private realm: in no way is the Court saying that the Christian baker has to give up his religious beliefs, nor are they tyrannically telling him that he must teach his children beliefs that are contrary to his religious beliefs.
The Court is simply saying that if you operate a business within the public realm you shall not discriminate against your customers based on race, religion, sex, etc. The Christian baker can still believe as he does within society, and freely associate with others who believe as he does. He can still teach his religious beliefs to his children within the privacy of his home, and within his place of worship. He can even still believe as he does within his bakery. However, he cannot discriminate against the customers that are coming into his business.
The crucial thing to remember here is that the Court is not saying the baker’s social or religious customs are in dispute; rather, the Court is explicitly speaking about keeping discrimination out of businesses that operate in the public realm. In other words, the Court is not saying that the baker’s religious belief about gay people is wrong, but that discriminatory laws within the public realm are unconstitutional and should not exist.
It certainly would be tyranny, or religious persecution, if the Court, or legislature, tried to enforce laws that stated the baker could no longer believe as he does. But that does not even come close to what is happening here.
The social realm: the advent of social media has allowed us to participate in the social realm with much greater ease. The social media world can be a great thing, but it can also be a nasty little world where anonymity gives a person a false sense of courage and righteousness to lash out against others. To be clear: this problem goes both ways within the heated partisan world. I have witnessed social rights activists engage in vicious attacks on people who believe differently than they. And I have also seen supposedly good Christian people engage in nasty homophobic and racist attacks against the LGBT and minority communities.
Arendt wrote that “discrimination is as indispensable a social right as equality is a political right.” This point may be hard for some people to accept, but the importance of it should really sink in for those who truly want to live in a free pluralistic society.
For example: while I may not like, or agree with, a person’s religious belief on homosexuality, I must, at a minimum, respect their social right to believe as they do. If I don’t respect this social right to believe as they do then I am obviously not comfortable living in a free pluralistic society. However, and as Arendt noted, the social right to discriminate must not trespass on the political realm nor the private realm.
Finally, social standards regarding homosexuality have dramatically changed over a relatively short period of time, thus it is important that we try to understand that “social standards are not legal standards,” and worse, if the laws “follow social prejudice [through enforcement of discriminatory laws], society has become tyrannical.”
In other words, the LGBT community did not ask for “special rights,” as some of the religious right would like to suggest. Rather, the LGBT community simply wanted the same political rights as others: to marry the person they love; to shop freely as others do; and to comfortably work in an environment free of harassment and discrimination. In reality, the religious heterosexuals were the ones who have had “special rights” all of this time.
Furthermore, the anti-gay social standard of the past, and the laws that once criminalized homosexuality, were a form of social tyranny. This might seem brazen to say, but I guarantee you that the homosexuals of the 18th or 19th century, who were caught by society and put to death, or thrown in jail, for simply being gay, would agree with this statement.
To conclude, the Christian baker does have options here. He can abide by the rule of law and find a way to do business within our secular country – many religious people have learned how to do this. If a gay couple comes into his shop, which I doubt many will after all of this recent national coverage, he will need to find a way to accommodate these gay couples. Furthermore, if the Christian baker cannot find a way to accommodate these couples, then he could always look into creating a private baker’s club that caters to only Christian customers.
On the other side, the social activists who are attacking the Christian baker’s beliefs via social media, or elsewhere, should also try and remember that, at a minimum, they should respect his social right to believe as he does. I am inclined to believe that the power of the purse is the best way to deal with this situation. Because if you believe calling the Christian baker a bigot will change anything… well, in my opinion, you are only enflaming the situation, and might be just as uncomfortable living in a free pluralistic society as the Christian baker.
Finally, to all those screaming “government tyranny” and “religious persecution.” While I strongly believe in your social right to say such nonsensical things, I’d suggest giving it a rest because it isn’t helping the situation at all.