Progressives are being, once again, played successfully by the right wing. This week’s news included the item that a restaurant owner in Lexington, Virginia, had (at the request of her staff) asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, based on staff’s reaction to President Trump’s hostility to gay rights (which of course it was Sanders’ job to reflect). This was in the context of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to confirm the right of a Colorado cake baker to decline to do a wedding cake for a gay couple.
The reaction was understandable, but ill-advised. Recall that part of the Jim Crow system was rigid segregation of “public accommodations,” that is, restaurants, hotels, shops, etc.—any business open to public patronage. Court decisions and civil rights laws of the 1960s outlawed discrimination on the basis of race in public accommodations. Back then, discrimination against gays was not the issue that it has subsequently become, but the principle is the same: those whose business is to offer services to the public must provide those services to anyone willing to pay the charge.
The reaction to ask Sanders to leave the restaurant was perhaps understandable, it played right into the right wingers' hands.
Ever since the Civil Rights era, conservatives have been trying various strategies to undermine the protections enshrined in that time. One of those strategies has for some years been the argument that there is a First Amendment right for those with religious convictions to deny service to those they disapprove of. It was this right that was invoked by the Colorado cake baker.
It was unfortunate, but not surprising, that the five conservative justices came down on the side of the baker. But note that it was a narrow decision that allowed that there could be valid grounds for the state to regulate such transactions, but that the state agency had shown an unacceptable bias against religion. So the door to discrimination in public accommodations on grounds of religious conviction was left ajar, but not fully open.
Our larger political context at this time features unrestrained insults and incivility by our Chief Executive toward any person or group that crosses him, and an equally intense reaction of those opposed to him. We are as polarized as we have ever been since the Civil War. In this context it no doubt seemed right to strike out at one of the most visible public faces of the Trump White House by denying her service at a restaurant.
While it might have been poetic justice to have had the presence of mind to assert some religious justification (e.g., “My religion requires me to deny service to those who are going to Hell, and you are!) for the denial of service, no such assertion was made.
The larger and decisive issue is this: once we make it acceptable for public accommodations to discriminate on any basis against anyone, we’ve placed ourselves on a slippery slope back to Jim Crow. We have come a long way from that era now. The Supreme Court has left the door ajar for the religious right to start us on the road back. Progressives should not be aiding and abetting their project.