Almost immediately after it came out over the weekend that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant, conservatives all over Twitter and elsewhere began comparing the situation to Masterpiece Cakeshop.
If Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, could turn away Sanders in part because her gay employees were uncomfortable, the thinking went, then Jack Phillips, the baker in Lakewood, Colorado, should be able to turn away a gay couple seeking a wedding cake.
Phillips, who was found to have violated Colorado civil rights law, won his appeal at the Supreme Court earlier this month on what amounted to a technicality: The justices believed his religious beliefs were disrespected by two (out of seven) members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, but the high court did not rule that the law protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination was unconstitutional.
Joseph R. Murray, the administrator of LGBTrump, criticized the owner of the Red Hen in USA Today, making the comparison to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case:
If Wilkinson is able to use her convictions — which included a perceived mistreatment of the LGBT community — as a justification to deny service, Christians should be able to, without LGBT objection, use their deeply held religious convictions to do the same. Wilkinson’s views would get her a standing ovation at the Tony Awards and a shout-out from Robert De Niro. But that doesn’t make those views any less prejudicial than those of a Christian baker unwilling to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
But this comparison is ludicrous, distorting civil rights law and diminishing the actual freedoms all business owners do retain and exercise in choosing to serve and not serve certain customers, as well as in creating and maintaining an ambiance in their establishments.
Wilkinson told The Washington Post she believed Sanders worked for an “Inhumane and unethical” administration, and yes, she had concerns about gay employees, who watched Sanders defend Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. But she had other concerns as well, including seeing Sanders defend the separation of children from their parents at the border.
“This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals,” she explained about her decision to privately (after asking Sanders if she could step aside) and politely ask Sanders to leave.
A restaurant can turn away a customer for any number of reasons ― from not following a dress code to being incredibly loud and obnoxious.
And yes, it can turn away someone who the owner believes lies for a racist president who separates children from their parents at the border and ejects transgender people from the military; it can turn away someone who, by that person’s own choice in her profession, makes people in the establishment, including employees, feel uncomfortable.
What a restaurant cannot do, however, is turn away someone because they’re a member of a group the owner doesn’t like or finds offensive or immoral and which is protected under civil rights statutes. That is a violation of the law.
Sanders wasn’t asked to leave because she is white or because she is a woman or because she is a Christian ― all of which she would be protected against under law in Virginia (and federally), just as LGBTQ people are protected against such discrimination in Colorado.
Sanders was instead denied service because of her willful participation in covering up Donald Trump’s falsehoods and defending his heinous policies.
Liars are not a protected class ― neither federally nor in the state of Virginia.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter @msignorile.