The Supreme Court is, today, hearing the case of a Denver baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. He holds that his religious beliefs, which oppose gay marriage, are constitutionally protected, as is his cake-making, which, as an artistic expression, is a form of speech.
The gay couple sued on the grounds that his refusal violated anti-discrimination laws.
When I first heard about the case, I was struck dumb. I, too, was confronted with a very similar, painful, situation:
I was sitting quietly in my bake shop, watching the dough rise, when a strangely-dressed couple (male/female) came in. I am not a well-traveled person, but I judged by her outfit that she was a Hindu, and could see that the man was an Indian too.
They asked if I could make a cake for a celebration in honor of one of their deities, I forget who. I was initially concerned that they might want a design with ten or twenty arms, which would not demonstrate my skills in their best light.
But that wasn’t the case at all. They showed me a photo of the design they wanted and I just about croaked. It was a swastika!
I hesitated, trying to think how to approach this, but all I could come up with was, I’m sorry, but it’s too complicated.
Complicated?! the man protested, it is simplicity itself; just a cross, with right-angle extensions; perfectly symmetrical.
True, true, I said, it would be easy to fashion. The complication is a moral one. A swastika is a symbol of hatred and murder — anti-Semitic, anti-non-white, probably even anti-Hindu if it had come to that. My conscience wouldn’t allow my hands to fashion such an abomination.
But you don’t understand, the woman interjected, the swastika is an ancient symbol of goodness and auspiciousness, revered by Hindus, Buddhists and others, even westerners. It was stolen by the Nazis and made a symbol of hate, but they could not erase its real meaning. It is still, to us, a sacred symbol of peace and love.
I really didn’t know that, I said, but, even so, if somebody — one of my assistants, or worse, another customer — saw it, they wouldn’t know its real meaning and intent, and they’d assume it was for some racist or fascist rally. And even if I denied it and explained its true meaning and intent, they’d assume that was just a cover-up.
So, the man said, it’s not really a question of morality, but simply of protecting your reputation and your business.
No … and yes. If I’m thought to be advocating fascism, it certainly doesn’t help me make the case for fighting against it. And, yes, of course, I want to protect my business, which is my living, but also a means for doing good things for people. For example, I’m working on a cake for a gay wedding.
A gay wedding? the woman cried, that’s disgusting!
With that, I knew I couldn’t do business with them, and assumed the feeling was mutual. I thought the problem was solved. But the husband saw his opening.
Look, he said, you’re a businessman. You know you’ll lose some customers if we decided to spread the word you do gay weddings. At the same time, you know you’ll lose other customers if it gets out that you do swastikas. Do this one for us, and we won’t say anything about it or your gay cakes.
I thought seriously about it, but decided I couldn’t compromise my principles — gay marriage was right and a swastika, even if its origins were positive, was now as wrong as wrong could be. Furthermore, I reminded myself, I am an artist. Art that isn’t a genuine expression of the artist’s beliefs and feelings is simply dishonesty.
No deal, I told them, and they stormed out, muttering something about a lawyer.
That was a few years ago. Today, my bake shop is just a memory, but not because of the lawsuit. That got dropped. No, it was the icing on the cake, literally. I must have used a spoiled batch. Everybody got sick, including the groom and the groom. The health authorities shut me down.
I’m selling shoes now. A nice shoe with a good fit is artistic expression enough. Shoes are neutral, neither gay nor straight, neither progressive nor fascist. If the Indian couple should come in, I’m sure I could make a sale, as long as we keep the talk away from cakes.