SCOTUS Shows Why We Need Uniform Protections for LGBTQ Community

Pride Month — the annual June celebration of the LGBTQ community which commemorates the Stonewall Riots of 1969 — got off to a sour start with the Supreme Court’s decision on June 4 in the closely-watched Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in favor of a Colorado baker who was sanctioned by the state’s Civil Rights Commission for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex couple. As the Supreme Court often likes to do, it sidestepped the core Constitutional question (Do LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws violate the First Amendment freedoms of people who claim their religion requires them to discriminate against gays?) and issued a narrow ruling in favor the cake shop on the grounds that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had shown prejudice against the baker’s religious beliefs when handling his case. At issue were some comments one of the commissioners made which the Justices interpreted as anti-religion.

This ruling satisfied no one, and guaranteed that the question of LGBTQ Americans’ right to not be discriminated against will continue to be fought out in court cases for years to come. But much of the media coverage and commentary has, in my opinion, missed one of the biggest lessons we should take away from this case if you support LGBTQ equality. Masterpiece Cakeshop was only ever sanctioned because Colorado has a state law banning LGBTQ discrimination. With no national anti-discrimination law, LGBTQ Americans are forced to navigate a complex patchwork of state and local ordinances in order to avoid completely legal discrimination.

Legislative District 18, and the larger Phoenix Metro area we are a part of, is a perfect example of this problem. Arizona, perhaps unsurprisingly, has no statewide anti-discrimination law like Colorado’s. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s State Equality Index, a thick guidebook designed to help people navigate state laws, Arizona is ranked as a “High Priority to Achieve Equality,” with no protections for employment, housing, and public accommodations, among many other areas. Arizona is ranked lower than any of the states we border (yes, even Utah, which is categorized as “Building Equality”), illustrating the patchwork nature of these laws and making us unattractive to LGBTQ people in neighboring states who might want to move here and add to our economy.

But it gets even patchier than that. HRC also releases a Municipal Equality Index which ranks city-level ordinances. For places like Arizona with no protections at the state level, these city-level laws can be important, but in a place like the Valley Metro area, where more than a dozen municipalities bump against and intersect each other, often making it hard to know which city you’re in, this can get maddening. LD 18, for example, encompasses parts of four cities: the Phoenix neighborhood of Ahwatukee, a large swatch of south Tempe, and the western parts of Mesa and Chandler. On the positive side, liberal-leaning Phoenix and Tempe both score 100 on this scale, joining Tucson as the only cities in the state with perfect scores. But Chandler and Mesa are both just barely D students, scoring 61 and 60 respectively, with no public accommodations protections of the type that would apply in the wedding cake case.  

So a bakery located in Tempe would not be allowed to discriminate against a same-sex couple but one located in Chandler is free to do so. With the way our cities run together, this means whether or not you can get legally discriminated against can literally depend on what side of the street a business is on. This makes no sense and is an undue burden on LGBTQ members of our community.

So instead of complaining about the Supreme Court’s inscrutability, we need to elect state-level officials who will pass statewide policies that will at least bring us up to the level of our neighboring states and, even better, congressional representatives who will pass a national Equality Act. These laws are going to continue being challenged in court by well-financed groups anti-LGBTQ groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (a similar case challenging Phoenix’s anti-discrimination law is working its way through the courts) but having uniform, fairly applied laws at the state and federal level will prevent them from winning on technical grounds as in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

David Boyles is an English instructor at Arizona State University.