There were a few snickers when a Colorado state judge ruled that a baker has to produce wedding cakes for gay couples even though he opposes same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
A cake? What's the big deal?
But the decision, handed down late last week, is just the latest slice in a debate that has gone front-burner with gay marriage now legalized in 16 states, and counting.
Can individual business people like Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver be compelled to provide wedding (or commitment ceremony) goods and services to gay couples?
Or should they be allowed a religious exemption, like churches and some institutions? Or a First Amendment free expression pass - a sort of "conscientious objector" status - if the job is at odds with their beliefs?
Those questions, long simmering, are being debated in legal circles, and in a handful of pending court cases involving not just cakes, but photography, event hall rentals and beyond.
And it's an issue that the U.S. Supreme Court has now been asked to weigh in on.
Faith Dictates No Photos
Lawyers for Albuquerque photographers Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, who declined to photograph a lesbian couple's 2006 commitment ceremony, have asked the high court to overturn a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that found the refusal discriminatory under state law.
Gay rights advocates hailed the August ruling as victory for gay Americans, and in line with New Mexico's public accommodations law that, like those in 21 other states, bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But lawyers for the Huguenins and their Elena Photography business argue that, as artists, their clients have a First Amendment right to free expression and should not be compelled to create expressive work at odds with their values and beliefs.
James Gottry, a Phoenix lawyer who is writing a friend of the court brief on behalf of wedding photographers who support the Huguenins' position, characterized the First Amendment conflict in the photographers' case "as really inevitable."
"As a society we value tolerance, we value inclusion," Gottry says. "But from our founding, we have also placed a high value on the freedom of speech and expression."
He likens the case to one out of New Hampshire in the late 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the state could not require residents to display the state motto, "Live Free Or Die," on their license plates if they found it "morally objectionable."
"The Elena Photography case takes that concept to the next level," Gottry says, "by very directly requiring a photographer to express a message that he or she does not agree with."
Discrimination Is Discrimination
In his Colorado cake case ruling, Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer acknowledged that some may view the actions of baker Phillips as within his rights as a businessman.
"At first blush," he wrote, "it may seem reasonable that a private business should be able to refuse service to anyone it chooses.
"This view, however," Spencer added, "fails to take into account the cost to society and the hurt caused to persons who are denied service simply because of who they are."
Colorado, like New Mexico, bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.
For Laura Durso, the issue is one of basic rights.
"There is a steady drumbeat of people understanding fairness in the marketplace," says Durso, director of LGBT research and communication at the Center for American Progress. "Open a business to serve the public? You have an obligation to serve everyone."
The cake and photography cases are a cause for concern in the LGBT community, she says, characterizing the prospect of new religious carve outs for businesses as a "slippery slope" that could lead to legal efforts to terminate gay, lesbian and transgender employees.
The rulings in Colorado and New Mexico, she noted, "are in line with the letter of the law."
The current court collisions are no surprise to religious liberty advocates including Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
"These are the kinds of cases that scholars have been predicting for a long time, and there's going to be a lot of them going forward, with all kinds of permutations," he says. "Photographers, cake bakers, florists, people who design invitations."
He argues that state public accommodations laws, which specify groups protected from discrimination, "were not written with same-sex marriage in mind."
The laws started with efforts in the 1960s to prevent discrimination based on race, and evolved to include gender, marital status, and other groups.
"They didn't have these types of conflicts in mind," says Rassbach, whose work has included cases attempting to secure kosher meals for a Jewish prison inmate in Texas and assisting in the Hobby Lobby case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hobby Lobby, a craft store giant represented by the Becket Fund, is challenging on religious grounds an Affordable Care Act requirement that its employer-provided health plan include birth control coverage.
"There's a conflict between the way public accommodations laws have been designed in the past, and religious liberty, and free expression," Rassbach argues. "Many activities surrounding weddings are expressive, because weddings themselves are symbolic expressions, ceremonies that have meaning."
Douglas Laycock, a noted expert in the field of same-sex marriage and religious liberty, wrote recently that while the number of people who think same sex marriage is morally or religiously wrong "is large," yet there is a very small percentage of business people "who will turn away business in the name of conscience." And he predicted their numbers should fall as same-sex marriages become "more familiar and accepted."
Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, supports same sex marriage and religious exemptions as, he writes, "parallel protections for quite similar claims to individual liberty in matters essential to personal identity."
Conscientious exemptions granted, he argued, would be small in number, "while the benefit to the individuals who need the exemption remains great."
So, what's the fix? Where is the line, constitutionally?
"That's the million dollar question," Gottrey says, and one that will have to be answered by state legislatures, or by the Supreme Court.
One more lesson on the power of social media:
On Tuesday, while watching a panel of experts dissect the memorial service for Nelson Mandela on CBS This Morning, I noticed the program chose Toto's "Africa" as the song to play over a montage of photos showing the rain-drenched ceremony.
Sure, there's a line in the song about "the rains of Africa," but I wondered why they didn't just use an African song about rain? So I sent this tweet:
That message (and an earlier one with a few misspellings — sorry, it's Twitter) was retweeted over 150 times. Notables such as Al-Jazeera America's Bill Wyman and NPR's own Peter Sagal weighed in. (Peter reminded me it was raining in Africa; but the clip CBS aired didn't even include the line about the rains, so you had to really know the song to get it.)
A YouTube video clip of the montage, from an account for BuzzFeed reporter Dorsey Shaw, has racked up more than 55,000 pageviews.
Obviously, it struck a chord. At a time when news outlets were scrambling to put Mandela's death in perspective, the music misstep felt like a quick reminder of how little U.S. media really knows about Africa.
CBS did a great job covering the actual memorial service in Johannesburg, presenting a wonderful story from celebrity musician-turned-cultural correspondent Wynton Marsalis about the influence of music on Mandela's fight for civil rights in South Africa. But that story also made the Toto selection feel even clunkier.
As my tweet was spreading across the Twitterverse, I went to YouTube, entered the search terms "Africa," "rains" and "song," and found this song from Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 30 seconds. Rights issues notwithstanding, a tune from South Africa's best-known vocal group might have been a better choice for CBS.
Still, it was surprising when Toto co-founder David Paich, who co-wrote "Africa," released a statement late Tuesday saying he didn't think CBS should have used the song, either.
Paich said, in part: "As the co-writer of the song, if I had been asked for sync approval, the answer would have been a decline with a recommendation they honor the musicians of South Africa setting their sights on indigenous repertoire. This is an important day, and both I and Toto, have always held a commitment towards supporting initiatives that benefit the populace of South Africa, the continent of Africa, and the entire Southern Hemisphere."
For this TV critic, it was another reminder of the amazing power social media can bring to a single statement that resonates with other people, even when that thought is just about a few seconds of music played on a national television program.
Eric Deggans joined NPR this fall as its new TV critic. He has been a journalist for 23 years and a TV critic for 15. Subject him to enough tough questions, and he'll admit he can't stop watching Law & Order: SVU and old Everybody Loves Raymond reruns.
Yoga clothier Lululemon began the year with an embarrassing problem — pants that allowed way too much of women's bottoms to be seen through their sheer fabric.
As 2013 approached its close, the company had to cope with another public relations challenge: chairman and founder Chip Wilson's comment that "quite frankly, some women's bodies just actually don't work" in Lululemon's pants because of "rubbing through the thighs."
Now, it's with the hope that the company can move ahead that it has announced that:
— Wilson "is resigning from the position of non-executive chairman. Mr. Wilson will step down from the role effective prior to the company's annual meeting in June 2014. The Board has selected Michael Casey, lead director of the board of directors, as the next chairman of the board."
— Laurent Potdevin, who most recently has been president of TOMS Shoes, will succeed Day as CEO in January.
According to The Financial Times, "industry analysts welcomed the appointment of Mr. Potdevin as the new chief executive of Lululemon. The team at Credit Suisse said Mr. Potdevin, 46, was a solid hire given his strong brand management and consumer engagement."
The U.S. and Britain are suspending all non-lethal aid to Syria's rebels because of infighting among the various factions opposed to President Bashar Assad.
The U.S. decision was reported by The Associated Press, which cited an unnamed U.S. Embassy official in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Humaniatrian aid won't be affected, the official said. The British decision was reported by Reuters, which quoted an unnamed British Embassy official in the city.
The AP reports:
"The decision comes days after fighters from the Islamic Front, an umbrella group of six major rebel groups, seized bases and warehouses belonging to the mainstream Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebel group at the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey."
The Islamic Front says its goal is to set up an Islamic state in Syria.
As NPR's Deborah Amos reported in September, "moderate rebel groups in Syria are becoming less influential in comparison to more radical Islamist factions."
"The civilian, secular democracy folks have been sidelined," David Kilcullen, the CEO of Caerus, a Virginia-based strategy firm, told Deb. "That is just a fact of life and I do think it's tragic. Today, you are looking at a polarized resistance, a larger number at the extremes."
But the FSA called the U.S. and British decisions mistaken.
"We hope our friends will rethink and wait for a few days when things will be clearer," FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad said, according to Reuters.
In the past, the two countries have offered body armour, food, money and radios to the rebels..
Reuters quoted the U.S. Embassy spokesman as saying the situation was being investigated "to inventory the status of U.S. equipment and supplies provided to the SMC." The British official expressed similar views.
But in London, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized the need to work with moderate members of the Syrian opposition.
"We must not allow this argument to develop that the only opposition in Syria is an extremist opposition," he told lawmakers.
The opposition infighting comes amid gains by Assad's regime in the fighting that has gripped the country. And as Deb reported last month:
"The regime is unlikely to retake all rebel-held areas, says [military analyst Jeffrey] White. But recent gains show the momentum has shifted. Is the Syrian army stronger, or the rebels weaker? Analysts say it's a bit of both. Mainstream rebel groups backed by the West and Saudi Arabia have been weakened by in-fighting, challenged by radical Islamist brigades, some of them tied to al-Qaida."
The nearly three year civil war has killed more than 100,000 people, and created a massive refugee crisis that has affected Syria's neighbors.
Resolved: That blocks are the best toys ever.
Every year around holiday time, lists of gift possibilities for children pop up here and there. Recently Barnes & Noble published its Best Toys of the Season round-up and the Goddard School system unveiled its Top 10 Preschooler-Approved Toy List for 2013.
One toy that these two lists — and nearly all good-toy rosters year after year - have in common is some variation on an age-old favorite: the block. Amid all the Furby Booms, Nerf blasters and LeapPad kiddie tablets, the block abides - solid, stalwart, dependable.
Better than dolls or balls - too much gender baggage. Better than puzzles and yo-yos — too hard for tots or too easy for teens. Better than toy guns or video games - enough said.
From basic, straightforward unit blocks (introduced in America by educator Caroline Pratt a century ago this year) and the geometry-inspired Froebel blocks (created for some of the earliest kindergarteners) to up-to-the-nanosecond smart blocks called ATOMS (supported by a Kickstarter campaign and introduced just last month), blocks are a constant in our lives.
Because. Well, blocks are the best toys ever.
All shapes and sizes. Small children can build big things with oversize toddler baby blocks or colorful things with Hot Colors CitiBlocs. As their hands become more dexterous, kids can use more complicated blocks like Erector sets, Tinker Toys and Legos, all of which were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998 — the Hall's first year.
Blocks are durable. Young people can stack 'em, whack 'em, kick 'em, lick 'em, chomp 'em, stomp 'em and pound 'em into the ground. Most blocks can withstand the punishment.
Creativity. Blocks can teach us all kinds of things in the arts and the sciences. Writing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 17th century philosopher John Locke suggested putting letters of the alphabet on cubes so that children would learn to build words and read by playing games. A recent study in the journal Child Development, according to World Science, shows that playing with blocks may help young people "develop math and spatial skills, which support later learning in science, technology and engineering."
Tomorrow: The Future Of Blocks
The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj