Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a gay couple while vindicating their civil rights. The decision, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, was a rather peculiar one. In his majority opinion, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” affirming that “the exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts.” Certain “religious and philosophical objections are protected,” Kennedy allowed, but “do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services.”
The case hinged on whether a bakery owner could refuse to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, and the court ruled in the baker’s favor largely because of how Colorado authorities had addressed his legal claims. However, there’s no language in the ruling that permits the bakery to keep discriminating–or paves the way for other businesses to do so–on the basis of religious beliefs. Instead the court affirmed that states can continue to protect LGBT people from discrimination in the marketplace.
That’s encouraging, but since the ruling was so narrow, inclusive businesses shouldn’t rest easy. Instead, every company should take yesterday’s decision as an urgent call to action, declaring their doors open for business–and closed to the misguided notion that faith can or should nullify civil rights in America.
While the court’s decision affirms the importance of nondiscrimination laws, it does not address the discrimination that millions of Americans still face. In more than half the country, our state laws do not explicitly protect LGBT Americans from discrimination in stores and restaurants, in the workplace, or in housing. In the majority of U.S. states, customers can be turned away from a business, denied a place to live, or get fired from their job simply because they are LGBT.
Businesses need to take the lead in changing that. They’ve already played instrumental roles in advancing nondiscrimination protections across the country, recognizing that fairness is good for business–and that when a business decides to open its doors to the public, it should be open to everyone, on the same terms. Take IBM and Target, for example, two companies that have moved to the fore in supporting transgender employees and customers. Or Starbucks, which despite being criticized for its handling of racial issues in the past, should be commended for responding to a discriminatory incident in one of its stores by educating its entire workforce about the importance of being open to all.
While awaiting a ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop over recent months, dozens of businesses have signed on to “Open to All,” a campaign spearheaded by the organization I work for, the Movement Advancement Project. The initiative is a coalition of 165 advocacy organizations dedicated to sounding a loud and clear message: We will not return to a time when customers are told, “We don’t serve your kind here.”
The campaign is centered around a pledge to maintain welcoming and safe environments for all employees, visitors, customers, vendors, and clients, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression–and not to discriminate based on these characteristics. Major chains and small business that take the pledge can display “Open to All” decals and placards in physical locations. Outside the campaign, it’s incumbent on every organization to work within their communities to defend inclusive values.
The Supreme Court’s affirmation of nondiscrimination protections is important to recognize, but the ruling does little to stem the tide of bills and court cases seeking to carve out licenses to discriminate. More of those are cropping up every day, including a so-called “religious exemption” law passed last year in Mississippi that has so far survived court challenges. And recently, a coalition of right-wing special-interest groups called Project Blitz has created a 116-page playbook to flood legislatures with similar bills that target women’s and LGBT rights. We already know that businesses can be powerful forces to counter these efforts when they become visible and vocal supporters of local, state, and federal nondiscrimination laws, and build cultures of inclusion in their own ranks.
The time for organizations to live their values is right now–before more same-sex couples are turned away from bakeries, before more black men are kicked out of coffee shops, and before more Jewish couples are threatened with adoption restrictions because of their religion.