Kicking Sarah Sanders Out of a Virginia Restaurant Isn’t ‘Bigotry.’ It’s a Teachable Moment

Sarah Huckabee Sanders never fails to demonstrate irony.

The White House Press Secretary claimed on Friday that she and her family members were asked to leave a Virginia restaurant because she works for the president of the United States. Noting that she “politely” left, she tweeted to three million followers from the official @PressSec account that the store manager’s “actions say far more about her than about [Sanders].”

“I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so,” the spokesperson noted.

Sanders and her father, one-time Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have held up the incident as an example of intolerance on the part of the left. Huckabee tweeted that “bigotry” was “on the menu at Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, Va.” He further directed customers to “ask for the ‘Hate Plate.’”

“And appetizers are ‘small plates for small minds,’” the former presidential candidate added.

The Huckabees, though, don’t have an issue when the tables are turned: Both support the right of people of faith to discriminate against LGBTQ folks in the name of their religious beliefs.

When Kim Davis was released from jail in September 2015 for refusing marriage licenses to same-sex couples following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the elder Huckabee appeared at a rally celebrating the Rowan County, Ky. clerk’s freedom. The two locked hands in a jubilant victory pose as “Eye of the Tiger” played, positioning Davis as the underdog “fighting judicial tyranny.”

The Republican politician would later claim that Davis was only compelled to follow the Supreme Court’s rulings “when it’s right.”

His daughter, meanwhile, has continually defended the right of Christian businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people on faith-based principles. When the Supreme Court issued a “narrow” 7-2 ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission earlier this month, Sanders said the White House was “pleased.”

“The First Amendment prohibits government from discriminating against the basis of religious beliefs, and the Supreme Court rightly concluded that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to show tolerance and respect for his religious beliefs,” she claimed. “In this case and others, the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously defend the free speech and religious freedom First Amendment rights.”

Although Sanders is not a member of a protected class—because Republicans are not included in any definition of civil rights law—here’s what the press secretary fails to realize: Friday’s incident debunks many of the arguments conservatives have long deployed to defend licenses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

In the case of religious business owners like Arlene’s Flowers owner Barronelle Stutzman, proponents of so-called “religious freedom” have argued that her decision not to provide a wedding bouquet for a same-sex couple had nothing to do with her own animus toward LGBTQ people; it was motivated by her Biblical conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman. After all, the couple in question—Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed—had been customers of Stutzman’s for years.

The common refrain in Stutzman’s case, which the Supreme Court declined to take up on Monday, goes something like: “It’s not who they are, it’s what they do.”

Similarly, Red Hen Restaurant presumably serves Republicans every day. Sixty-two percent of voters in Rockbridge County, where the Virginia establishment calls home, voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson said that refusing service to Sanders was based on what she and the administration she works for do, specifically citing the White House’s “inhumane and unethical” attacks on LGBTQ people and immigrants.

“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” Wilkinson told the Washington Post. “I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”

Although conservatives have flooded the company’s Yelp page with negative reviews, Red Hen Restaurant has not stated its desire to eject all Trump supporters. The business’s owners made a decision based on their own “sincerely held beliefs”—which are that LGBTQ people deserve equal treatment under the law and that innocent migrant children should not be separated from their parents.

But that’s about where the similarities between the two cases end. While the owners of Red Hen Restaurant have not argued for a sweeping right to discriminate against people of a certain characteristic (this time, conservatives), that’s precisely what people like the press secretary have defended.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Masterpiece case in December, Sanders claimed that religious business owners would be well within their rights to hang signs refusing service to LGBTQ people. She told reporters that Trump “certainly supports religious liberty,” calling the issue “something he talked about during the campaign and has upheld since taking office.”

When asked if that included “No Gays Allowed” signs, she added: “I believe that would include that.”

Unfortunately for LGBTQ Americans, such displays are perfectly legal in at least 29 states. After the Masterpiece decision came down earlier this month, it was revealed that a Tennessee hardware store has had a sign up for the past three years, claiming its right to “refuse service to anyone who would violate our rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

While Sanders described the incident at Red Hen Restaurant as “polite,” anti-LGBTQ refusals are typically anything but. When a gay couple was kicked out of an East Texas restaurant in 2014 for “touching legs,” the waitress at Big Earl’s told them: “We don’t serve fags here.”

“Here at Big Earl’s we like for men to act like men and for ladies to act like ladies, so we want you to never return,” the employee added.

The couple’s experience isn’t uncommon. When Houstoners Randall Magill and Jose Chavez kissed in an Uber on New Year’s Eve, their driver forced them out onto a busy highway—where they could have been struck by an oncoming car and killed on a night notorious for drunk driving. When a lesbian couple was similarly booted from their rideshare earlier this month, they filmed the confrontation in fear that it might escalate into a hate crime.

What appears to have upset Sanders isn’t that she was put in the crosshairs of violent hate—as far too many LGBTQ people are every day. By her own admission, she appears to have had a civil disagreement with the Virginia restaurant. She was not harmed. Her family members were not harmed. She has retained her job, her livelihood, and her privileges as a cisgender white woman.  

Sanders is angry because she experienced what LGBTQ individuals are forced to endure in a majority of states: the feeling of the door hitting you on the way out. It hurts. And in her case, what hurts worse is that she won’t learn a damn thing from it.

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