On Sunday, October 1, the owner of a coffee shop in Seattle confronted a group of customers, cursed at them, and forced them to leave the premises. That’s the PG version; the specific details are decidedly less pleasant. If you have the stomach for it, you can view the entire exchange here. Please be warned that the summary I give below will reference sexual profanities.
According to reports, the customers were “peaceful Christian abolitionists” who had been sharing about their faith and pro-life views for several days, handing out literature and conversing with passersby on sidewalks and public property. One of the group’s members said they entered Bedlam Coffee to rest and enjoy a cup of coffee; they did not engage in any advocacy or distribute literature while inside the shop.
However, someone alerted the owner, Ben Borgman, to the group’s presence. Borgman obtained a pamphlet—found outside—that the group had been handing out. The pamphlet “featured an image of an aborted child, as well as rainbow-colored imagery along with an explanation of what the rainbow means according to Scripture; a symbol of God’s long-suffering mercy toward sinners.”
Borgman then confronted the customers, telling them “I’m gay, you have to leave.” He went on to state that the material “offends me,” told the group to “Shut up! Shut up!” and at one point asked the group if they would “tolerate my presence . . . if I go get my boyfriend and f*ck him in the a** right here.” He added, “Tell all your f*cking friends, don’t f*cking come here.” Suffice it to say, the conversation went downhill from there, and the group exited Bedlam Coffee.
Coffee, Cake, and Flowers: A Study in Contrast
This entire exchange stands in stark contrast to several other high-profile interactions in recent years. Here are just two examples.
Jack Phillips is a cake artist in Colorado, and the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. In 2012, two men asked Jack to custom-design a wedding cake for their same-sex marriage. Because of his religious conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, Jack declined the invitation. However, he also told the couple that he would gladly sell them any premade baked item in his store or create a cake for them for another occasion.
Barronelle Stutzman is a florist from Washington. In 2013, a longtime customer and friend, Rob Ingersoll, asked her to design custom floral arrangements for his same-sex wedding. Barronelle responded by taking Rob’s hands in her own and telling him, “I’m sorry I can’t do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ.” She referred him to three other floral artists and embraced him before he left her shop.
What happened to Jack and Barronelle?
Jack received death threats, was compared to a Nazi, and had to sacrifice nearly half of his business. Notably, the latter two injustices were perpetrated by government officials. The couple who had attempted to commission the cake filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, claiming Jack violated a nondiscrimination law.
The Commission agreed, ruling that Jack’s decision to decline artistic commissions that violated his conscience was unlawful. It ordered him (1) to design cakes celebrating same-sex marriages (or, alternatively, to cease creating any wedding cakes at all), (2) instruct his staff that he was wrong to allow his religious beliefs to inform his business decisions as a creative professional, and (3) file reports with the government for two years, detailing any instance in which he declined an order.
Jack chose to remain true to his conscience and left the wedding industry, giving up 40 percent of his business in the process.
Barronelle received a flood of negative media attention, and her shop was inundated with hate mail and profane phone calls. She was sued by her state’s attorney general and the ACLU, and she faces the loss of everything she owns. The attorney general also condemned Barronelle during his political stumping throughout the state.
What will happen to Bedlam Coffee and its owner?
It’s too soon to tell what consequences Bedlam Coffee and Ben Borgman may face, if any.
In his zealous prosecution of Barronelle, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson stated that “Washington law is clear: Businesses cannot discriminate.” It’s clear that Ferguson believes this principle applies to a florist who for religious reasons cannot design flower arrangements to celebrate a same-sex marriage, even though she has served and employed LGBT individuals for years.
What’s not clear is whether Ferguson believes the principle applies to a coffee shop owner who expels a group of people from his store because of their religious beliefs, saying, “I do not want these people in this place.” So far, Ferguson has been noticeably silent.
In the meantime, Out Magazine has hailed the owner of Bedlam Coffee as “heroic” and, before Yelp posted an “Active Cleanup Alert,” the business had received at least two 5-star reviews, with both reviewers applauding Borgman’s actions, and one adding that “Christian whiners should go elsewhere,” “take your bible and f*ck off.”
Nondiscrimination Laws and the First Amendment
Equality is a vital component of any diverse society. Freedom of conscience is also a vital component of any free society. When the two collide, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that nondiscrimination laws cannot supersede the First Amendment’s guarantee of expressive freedom. Determining whether a collision has actually occurred . . . well, that’s the tricky part.
On one end of the spectrum are business owners who choose to exclude an entire class of people, simply because of their race, religious beliefs, or other characteristics. On the other end are people like Jack and Barronelle, artists who serve all people but decline to create custom art that celebrates events or expresses messages that conflict with their faith.
Where do the actions of Ben Borgman fall on the spectrum? For now, we don’t need to decide, because Borgman isn’t currently facing the loss of his livelihood. Jack and Barronelle are.
Jack’s case will be heard by the United States Supreme Court on December 5. Barronelle has also asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on her case. Neither Jack nor Barronelle is asking for a license to discriminate. They will serve everyone. But they do want the Supreme Court to protect the freedom of artists to respectfully decline requests to create art that conflicts with their deepest convictions.
I’m not a coffee drinker, but I’ll drink to that.
Edward J. Hamilton is an attorney who writes about constitutional issues. Republished with permission from The Public Discourse.