A Grandmother on Wedding Cakes

Aaron and Melissa Klein, the owners of Sweetcakes by Melissa, were ordered by Oregon state officials last month to pay $135,000 in damages after they declined to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple...

[The bakers] decided this week that they wanted to let gays and lesbians know that, despite ideological and theological differences, they love and care about them. The husband and wife duo baked 10 cakes... and mailed them out [with an explanatory letter] to gay rights groups on Wednesday.

-- The Blade, 8/20/15

Sixty-one years ago, my mother made my wedding cake -- a buttery white fruitcake with creamy icing. She assembled tiered cake pans, candied citron and pineapple, white raisins and blanched almonds, and then baked the layers over several days. Decorated with holly (Christmas wedding), the finished cake leaned like the tower of Pisa. But it was perfect, a labor of love from Mother to us. She even kept the top layer in her freezer for our first anniversary.

Over time, she made the recipe for my sisters' and brother's weddings, and for our children's, until, in her late seventies, she forgot salt in one and decided she shouldn't make more.

Were she still living, she would have rejoiced in the June Supreme Court ruling legalizing same sex marriages. And no doubt would have dreamed of making a wedding cake for her openly gay grandson, our son, when the right man comes along.

The Blade's article about the Kleins' sending cakes to gay rights groups -- not wedding cakes; eight inch rounds with red hearts on top saying "We really do love you!" -- and their reasons for it reminded me of how special the cake my mother made us was. And how special all wedding cakes are.

As the mother of a potential gay groom who doesn't bake, the owners of Sweetcakes by Melissa would no doubt have declined my order for a wedding cake on the grounds that same sex marriage is contrary to their faith. So I fully understand how the lesbian couple reacted when the Kleins declined their request.

At the same time, even though I don't subscribe to their theology or the resulting actions, given the effort Mother put into our wedding cake, I see how the Kleins didn't wish to put energy into a cake for an occasion they couldn't otherwise support. For all of us with strongly held beliefs, living those day-to-day is often a struggle. So I can respect them for striving to live theirs, troubling as their decisions -- and others similar -- are to me.

We who hold contrary beliefs must also live our own. Which is why the couple sued and the court levied a fine. And why I am writing this.

My son and other LGBT people did not choose to be who they are any more than I chose to be me. In my faith terms, we are each as God intended and all equal in His sight.

Therefore, for me, refusing to bake some wedding cakes from religious conviction is not the real issue. Rather, it manifests deeper questions:

Is America, as we state it to be, truly a country built on the declaration that all people, whatever their race, gender, religion or orientation, are created equal and thus deserve the same dignity and respect?

Or, given our similarly central proclamation of freedom to practice our religious beliefs, are we, through the proliferation of so-called Religious Liberty protection laws, reverting to a society that permits discrimination by some of us against others of us because our particular faith "dictates" we may if the others don't look like us, love as we love, or share our beliefs?

Like many Americans, the Kleins are too young to have lived, as I have, in an earlier America. An America none of us should forget:

One that, because of laws and customs purportedly based in theology (think: Biblical references to Ham) and the happenstance of being born with white skin, justified the superiority of people like me. Consequently, I could sit at the Woolworth's counter and be served a chocolate ice cream soda or an egg salad sandwich. But Coloreds (the term in the '40s) couldn't. Where I could use the nice rest room and drink from the water fountain, both clearly so labeled. And they couldn't. Or sit on the main floor of the movie theater while they had to sit in the balcony. Where I, but not others, could walk in public parks in California that had signs declaring: "Dogs and Filipinos (or Chinese) Not Allowed."

Or an America where a world-renowned black contralto could give a concert in Springfield, Missouri, but not be accommodated in a first class hotel. My mother, who belonged to the NAACP, invited her to stay with us. For several days, she did, much to the ire of our neighbors.

Or an America that fostered anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage -- Asiatics and Caucasians on the west coast, Negros and whites in the South. Or laws making sodomy between consenting adults in the privacy of their own bedrooms illegal.

The civil rights movement, fired by outrage at racial violence and Jim Crow and by belief in God-given human equality and the theoretical promise of that for all Americans, gained momentum as I entered adulthood following World War II. College students sat-in at food counters. Rosa Parks and many others walked rather than riding in the back of the bus. And Americans -- black and white, clergy and laity -- preached, sang, went to jail, filed lawsuits, wrote outraged letters and took to the streets (with most of the rest of us aghast at TV images of local police forces attacking peaceful demonstrators).

This exercise in democracy galvanized many of us, cost lives and generated a congressional battle over conflicting ideologies and religious beliefs and what it meant to be an American.

As a result, the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964. Beyond outlawing segregation and discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, it specifically cited facilities serving the general public. The Act's Public Accommodations section mandates open access to public businesses -- hotels, restaurants and retail stores. The broader meaning of it and later court decisions invalidating miscegenation and anti-sodomy laws go beyond race to such simple matters as wedding cakes.

Whether they like it or not, businesses like Sweetcakes by Melissa -- or florists or caterers whose owners agree with the Kleins that same-sex marriages are contrary to their religion -- fit that definition. As I understand it, the law doesn't deny individuals the right to believe their faith's teachings. Or limit their freedom to act accordingly in their private lives. But it means, nonetheless, that as proprietors of businesses open to the general public, they may not deny services to particular categories of customers.

Such proprietors do have options. They can commit civil disobedience and discriminate: Refusing to bake a wedding cake for some people but not others is just that. We have a well-established history of civil disobedience in this country. Engaging in such actions, however, also has consequences. Choosing that path means accepting that risk, including facing lawsuits and fines.

They could put their money where their religious convictions are and refuse to make wedding cakes (or cater, photograph or do flowers for weddings). Period. Not for anyone. Or decide to change their line of business. Or, they could be led to bake wedding cakes for all.

Which returns us to the Kleins and their cakes. As quoted by the Blade, Melissa said: "We wanted to have the cake represent freedom..." Noting that she believes gays and lesbians should be free to live as they choose, the article reports her as adding: "But I also feel like I should have the right to live the way I want to, and that should be my choice."

As a nation, we have struggled since our founding to find the balance between personal freedom and respecting the equality and dignity of others. The Civil Rights Act with its Public Accommodation statute we fought for half a century ago and the legal decisions since guaranteeing other freedoms to marry and have those marriages respected throughout the United States are a critical piece of that balance.

Melissa Klein undoubtedly means what she says kindly, both about her faith and in the letter accompanying the cakes. But perhaps she doesn't appreciate how I reacted as the mother of a gay rights activist who might have received them.

The love she professes for gays and lesbians strikes me as conditional: They may live as they want, providing they don't act on what she has, the right to marry, or at least don't ask her to bake for the occasion. Likewise, the cakes are second best under the circumstances. Delicious I am sure, but not wedding cake.

Conditional love and second best cakes are not good enough for my son. Or anyone else's LGBT children either. That isn't equality or respect.

This and other Grandmother blogs will be included in a forthcoming book to be published by Red Mountain Press in 1916