NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Sincerely Held Beliefs

The days leading up to Easter are always steeped in talk of religion … but this year’s Holy Week conversations have truly, you might say, taken the cake. From Indiana and Arkansas to, yes, North Dakota, daily news coverage has included the word “Christian” more often than in any prior seven days in American history.

But you couldn’t really say the focus has been on the “good news.” In this corner of the ring: those who believe all people should be treated equally under the law. In the opposite corner: those who … well, don’t.

Fighting a rear-guard action against the tide of history, the crowd of confirmed conservatives who characterize themselves as Christian have prevailed for now. Their businesses need not employ, or rent to, or even bake for their gay North Dakota neighbors.

Of course, you already know all this. Every single person of my acquaintance has been caught up in the political drama in Bismarck. Every one of us has read about the North Dakota Legislature’s rejection of adding sexual orientation to the guarantee of civil rights. Pretty much all of us have been drawn into heated conversations over the House vote to deny legal rights  what some call “basic” and others call “special” — to LGBTQ people.

The single-most interesting development, to me, was spurred by Friday’s front page of my local daily newspaper. The Forum featured portraits of each of the 94 members of the House, grouped according to their votes  roughly 2-to-1 against the equal rights provision. Members of the Senate, which earlier passed the measure 25-22, were accorded the same roll-call report on the jump page. The headline: “North Dakota denies equal protection for gays.”

Like the headline and the list of legislators’ votes, the accompanying story was absolutely objective. It simply recounted what the measure represented and comments from several supporters and opponents. That’s exactly what’s to be expected of good journalists.

But the chatter ever since is fairly fascinating. Civil-rights advocates on the losing side have applauded and thanked the paper. Some of their opponents seem to feel differently. They’ve taken to social media (with letters to the editor sure to follow) to accuse the newspaper of bias – arguing that by spotlighting this particular vote, The Forum was somehow editorializing against the guardians of the status quo.

Now, how could this be? Doesn’t Page One coverage equally benefit the pros and the antis, each preaching to their respective choirs? Apparently not. I think we can assume that at least some of the opponents fear that exposure to the light of day might change the outcome the next time legislators confront the very same question (as they most definitely will). It’s their subtle but telling acknowledgment that even the most deeply committed anti-gay activists understand Americans’ rapid acceptance of gay marriage and rights is hot on their heels. By the next election  who knows?

For now, though, the House members aren’t the only ones who stand revealed. Behind the slightly more than a gross of men and women whose votes The Forum reported stand a quarter million North Dakotans who look exactly like them … the voters who sent this corps of yea- and naysayers to the Capitol on their behalf. Why would disclosing the no votes “shame them,” as some critics claim? It’s a pretty safe bet that those who elected the militant antis  most of them by vote margins ranging from ample to humongous  had a very good idea what each stood for. For better or for worse, these legislators have done exactly what their voters expected.

Equality under the law will surely circle back to North Dakota. In the meantime, though, discrimination against those deemed different remains the status quo. It may even accelerate. When the Supreme Court strikes down North Dakota’s ban on gay marriage in coming days, hometown bakeries and pizza shops and wedding photographers will finally get their chance to enter the inane media-fueled brouhaha over catering to brides and grooms in nontraditional configurations.

Here it comes  the collision of unfettered capitalism with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” This could get interesting fast.

Personally, I don’t know many bakers and can’t tell you how this will play out in the realm of flour, eggs and baking powder. I do know dozens and dozens of photographers. They’ll tell you it’s a tough, cold world out there, where a dwindling supply of couples are willing to pay the considerable price for professional images. Will they choose to turn down wedding portraits for any twosome willing to hire them?

To save time and reduce the awkwardness of making moral judgments on a customer-by-customer basis, here’s a modest marketing proposal. Let’s streamline the process. Business owners who feel their personal “sincerely held religious beliefs” permit them to deny service to the wrong sort of customers could take the bold first step today … while the state of North Dakota still offers absolutely no legal impediment.

Come out of the closet. Why not post “No LGBTQ” signs on your businesses right now? Thousands of us are curious. That includes not only the folks whom you’d prefer to forfeit to your competition, but the broad, growing and determined coalition who support the notion that every person deserves dignity, respect and a fancy layer cake with their choice of fondant or butter cream frosting.

Go ahead. Replace the rainbow flag with your own banner of pride  of course, in black and white. Your fellow partisans will surely rush to line up at your cash register. As for the rest of us … we too will look to our own equally sincere convictions when it comes to ordering cake.

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