Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard a case that is directly tied to Alaska. It has to do with locker rooms and wedding cakes. Hear me out.
In September of 2015, the Anchorage Assembly passed an ordinance (AO-96) that was then signed into law by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz that added sexual orientation and gender identity to the municipal non-discrimination code.Sounds well-intentioned, but it gets messy if you value freedom.
This issue has been percolating for decades going back to the 1970s with the first Mayor Sullivan (George). In 2009, the Assembly passed an ordinance similar to AO-96 but it was vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, who correctly noted there was no evidence of discrimination in Anchorage related to these two categories. Then, in 2012, Proposition 5 was placed on the ballot before the voters essentially asking the same question. It was defeated soundly. More than 57 percent of Anchorage voters indicated with their vote that our community is already a tolerant place to live and work.
AO-96 was passed, and the Anchorage Assembly rejected every amendment to protect religious liberty, right of conscience and privacy for women and girls. Alaska Family Action exists to protect the important economic and social rights of individuals, businesses and nonprofit groups to live and operate according to their deeply held convictions, and so we moved forward with an initiative to fix this bad law.
Because the municipal attorney put up a legal block saying only part of the law could be corrected per initiative, we chose to amend only a small part of AO-96 having to do privacy, safety and dignity in intimate spaces like showers, locker rooms and changing facilities. We'll be encouraging people to vote yes to protect privacy on that matter, Prop 1, in April of 2018. There will be plenty of public dialogue about that in the coming weeks and months. But there was another aspect of AO-96 that was just as harmful to fundamental liberties our country was founded on.
AO-96 also includes language forcing Anchorage businesses to conform to a government-mandated moral code in order to avoid fines or jail. As what some in the judiciary have said is the "price of citizenship," the Anchorage Assembly ordinance opened up the gates for government to punish citizens for declining to express ideas or celebrate events that violate their beliefs.
That brings me back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece, is a cake artist who serves all customers but can't express all messages. The state of Colorado charged him with discrimination when he declined to custom create a cake for a same-sex wedding due to his Christian beliefs about marriage.
Before you jump to a conclusion and call Jack a bigot, ask yourself if a pacifist-owned T-shirt shop should be targeted by the government if they decline to design shirts for an NRA rally. Or if an African-American who owns a print shop should be required by law to print flyers for a KKK event.
How about one that is not hypothetical?
A dress designer declined to work with Melania Trump on her inaugural gown based on her vehement disagreement of Trump politics. Because that dress designer is in the public marketplace, does she forfeit her right to maintain the values that animate her? Should she be coerced by big government to design the dress?
As Jack Phillips' attorneys argued, all laws must respect the freedoms of every citizen, no matter who they are. Phillips, along with the dress designer, should be free to peacefully live and work according to their core convictions without the fear of unjust government punishment. Laws that single out and punish citizens on the basis of their peacefully expressed beliefs provoke intolerance, social hostility, and disrespect toward people whose beliefs differ from those in political power.
Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented Phillips and with whom Alaska Family Action partners with regularly, made it very clear in their arguments that the primary issue was the artistic message, not the identity of the customer. Phillips gladly served LGBTQ customers in every other capacity. He would have even provided a wedding cake off the shelf to the two men. He drew the line when they wanted to tap into the artistic talents he feels blessed to have been given. Ultimately, the gay couple easily found another cake vendor who designed a rainbow-themed cake that obviously expressed the message they had every right to make. They just didn't have the right to make Jack Phillips create that message.
Justice Kennedy, likely the swing vote in this case, fortified freedom-loving, liberty-minded people when he rightfully noted during questioning that Jack Phillips has "nothing against gay people but just doesn't think they should have a marriage because that's contrary to his beliefs." Kennedy also stated that "tolerance is essential in a free society. And tolerance is most meaningful when it's mutual. It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips' religious beliefs." That is not a statement LGBTQ activists were encouraged by.
Ultimately, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom to peacefully express our ideas and promote what we believe. It also protects our freedom not to participate in speech or events that we don't believe or agree with. Living in a pluralistic society inherently means we live and work around people with whom we disagree. Taking that away would be a loss for everyone and in fact, it would not look like America at all.
Jim Minnery is president and founder of Alaska Family Action, statewide, pro-family public policy organization that exists to provide a voice on social and cultural issues impacting Alaskan families.
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