Every so often gay rights and religious freedom of confections clash. It’s never pretty. There was of course the Indianapolis cupcake saga of last year where a baker refused to make a batch of rainbow National Coming Out Day cupcakes because he was concerned about family values. Now a baker in Iowa has, based on the fact that she’s a Christian, refused to create a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.
The couple in question are Trina Vodraska and Janelle Sievers. They are engaged to be married and are currently busy planning for their June wedding. All had been going smoothly, but when they turned up for a cake taste-testing appointment on Thursday of last week they found themselves quizzed over the nature of their relationship. They were then told by baker Victoria Childress, who runs the bakery from her home, that per her religious beliefs about their “lifestyle” she would not be making them a cake.
“They came in and she introduced herself, and I said, ‘Is this your sister?’ (She said,) ‘No, this is my partner.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and I asked them to sit down and I said, ‘We need to talk,’” said Victoria Childress, who runs her cake baking business from home. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you I’m a Christian, and I do have convictions.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but I’m not going to be able to do your cake.”
“I said that was fine and I appreciated her being honest,” Vodraska said.
“I don’t think either one of us knew what to say. We were just shocked,” Sievers said.
Childress said it’s her right to refuse to do the cake.
“I didn’t do the cake because of my convictions for their lifestyle. It is my right as a business owner. It is my right, and it’s not to discriminate against them. It’s not so much to do with them, it’s to do with me and my walk with God and what I will answer (to) him for,” Childress said.
A quick scan of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, expanded in 2007 to extend protections on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, says that a refusal of services based on sexual orientation is actually forbidden unless the service provider is a “bona fide religious institution”:
216.7 UNFAIR PRACTICES — ACCOMMODATIONS OR SERVICES.
1. It shall be an unfair or discriminatory practice for any owner, lessee, sublessee, proprietor, manager, or superintendent of any public accommodation or any agent or employee thereof:
a. To refuse or deny to any person because of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability the accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges thereof, or otherwise to discriminate against any person because of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability in the furnishing of such accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges.
Childress is a person of faith who, based on her video interview with KCCI.com, appears to truly believe she wasn’t discriminating against the couple. In fact she contends the issue is not about the couple at all but rather her being able to express her religious convictions about their “lifestyle,” and however objectionable we may find that set of beliefs it does appear she never intended to hurt Trina Vodraska and Janelle Sievers. However, unless she would contend she is a bona fide religious institution, it would seem Childress is incorrect that it is her automatic right as a business owner to refuse to serve the couple.
Trina Vodraska and Janelle Sievers have said they found the experience degrading but it is unclear at this time whether they will file a legal suit.
However, what might have appeared to be a rather trivial matter about a wedding cake — and one with an easy remedy: just go to another bakery and spread the word that Childress isn’t providing services to same-sex couples, letting all who find that offensive protest by also not using Childress’ services — has now turned into a civil rights versus religious exemptions battle, reminding us that the question of how far religious privilege should extend is an issue that, we are increasingly finding, can no longer be sugarcoated or skirted.