The Supreme Court has served up a steaming plate of nationwide marriage equality, and like an obstinate toddler being told to eat his vegetables, opponents of same-sex marriage are throwing a tantrum for the ages.
An entire Tennessee county clerk's office has resigned rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The owner of a hardware store, also in Tennessee, put up a sign declaring "No Gays Allowed" at the establishment, uncomfortable historical precedent be damned. Republican legislators in Michigan have signaled they intend to push for a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" to strengthen the right of business owners to discriminate against LGBT couples and individuals if they assert "a burden on exercise of religion."
Like all wedding-related arguments, the debate is mostly about cake. The anxiety of same-sex marriage opponents over religious freedom espoused by same-sex marriage detractors largely stems from the saga of an Oregon bakery that was successfully sued by a lesbian couple after its owners refused to bake them a wedding cake. On Saturday, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa were ordered by the civil rights division of Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries to pay $135,000 in damages to the couple. The damages compensate the couple for emotional and mental suffering that resulted from the denial of service, which the agency ruled a violation of Oregon's anti-discrimination law.
The bakery's owners, Melissa and Aaron Klein, refused to bake the cake in 2013, sparking a nationwide debate over the right of nonreligious businesses to refuse service based on the deeply held religious beliefs of their owners. Despite having settled this same argument five decades ago, only 54% of Americans believe businesses shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against LGBT customers.
The Kleins, for their part, aren't backing down. In a Facebook status posted after the agency's ruling, they stated they plan to continue the fight against selling confections to certain classes of people:
The bakery and its supporters are trying to have their cake and eat it too. For all the kvetching by Republican presidential candidates about the Supreme Court's ruling, many are quietly pleased that it effectively removes the issue from contention ahead of the election.
Same-sex marriage was fast becoming a losing issue for the Republican Party, with public approval of marriage equality reaching a majority even among young Republicans. Now that the Supreme Court has essentially settled the matter, candidates can publicly satisfy their anti-marriage base without alienating everybody else.
The "cake wars" are the new Southern Strategy: Like the political scheme used by the Republican Party to gain political clout in the South by exploiting racial tension, the use of "religious freedom restoration acts" to raise the support of same-sex marriage opponents uses coded language that masks the homophobic impulses behind discrimination. In a 1981 interview, then-RNC Chairman Lee Atwater described a similar strategy:
They've picked the wrong hill to die on. The dog-whistle homophobia of the cake wars may be enough to sate the discriminatory urges of small-town bakers, but the Supreme Court's decision on marriage means the legality of that discrimination may not be long for this world. The same court that has held that preventing same-sex couples from marrying is a violation of the U.S. Constitution isn't likely to rule that the same minority group can be discriminated against by private entities.
In any case, the majority of Americans — slim though that majority may be — support the right of LGBT people to pay for wedding venues, caterers and desserts without fear of being told that their money's no good. While national discrimination legislation for LGBT Americans may not be a priority in the current Congress, upcoming elections and national fatigue over the mostly settled issue of gay rights may force opponents of same-sex relationships to put away their dog whistles for good.