Editor’s Note: Dennis W. Shepard is a board member emeritus of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and currently speaks to audiences around the country about the importance of equal treatment of LGBTQ crime victims and their loved ones. He and his wife, Judy, continue to live and work in Casper, Wyoming. The views expressed here are solely the author’s.
This year marks the 20th year since the death of my son, Matt Shepard, in Laramie, Wyoming. His murder at the age of 21 sparked a critical push forward when it comes to protecting the rights of LGBTQ people.
I know all too well what happens when people feel empowered, encouraged and enabled by the lack of protections and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. It results in people like Matt being kidnapped, brutally attacked and left to die by people who hate you simply for who you are.
And, sometimes, when people feel empowered in this way, it allows them to intentionally misrepresent a person’s words to stir up hate.
Over the past few months, as I’ve heard the story of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the same-sex couple at the center of Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, I’ve thought a lot about Matt – especially when Mr. Craig briefly mentioned the challenges he experienced growing up in Wyoming. For a young LGBTQ person, it can be a lonely and difficult time and place.
When the US Supreme Court issued its ruling on Masterpiece, I wondered if my concerns about the case had been overblown. Though the Supreme Court technically ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, the baker who refused to make a wedding cake for Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullins, the majority opinion clearly affirmed both the dignity of each side and the moral worth of each argument. Maybe the cake wasn’t, as I’d feared, the deceptive opening salvo of another effort to eradicate the rights of LGBTQ people.
But since then, some of the purported leaders of the religious right have tainted this thoughtful ruling by painting their side as righteous and the other side as evil. As part of this alarming shift in debate, they demonize anyone who disagrees with them and their worldview.
They claim that those of us, both straight and gay, who are working to protect the equal rights for millions of LGBTQ Americans across this country are out to persecute them for their religious beliefs. What about the persecution received daily by members of the LGBTQ community in the slow and insidious erosion of their rights as citizens of this country?
People of faith are people of love, with respect for the dignity and equality of all citizens of America. The Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not give Mr. Phillips’ beliefs the full respect they deserved. But to be perfectly clear, the Supreme Court’s decision only invalidated the state commission’s ruling. It did not invalidate Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. It did not grant Mr. Phillips the right to refuse service to same-sex couples seeking a wedding cake in the future.
With its latest ruling in a related case, that of a florist who refused to make an arrangement for a same-sex couple’s marriage, the Supreme Court explicitly used its ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop to send the case back to a lower court for review. It specifically stated that the lower court should reexamine the ruling for the same type of bias shown in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
However, the difference is that the florist case decision was determined by a court of law judges, not by a “civilian” group of citizens as in the Colorado cake case, thus making it extremely difficult to find the bias necessary to overturn the decision.
Many observers have suggested that the justices wanted to defer further debate on this issue by doing this, which is troubling because it wipes away a lower court opinion that sided with a same-sex couple. And, as law professor Steve Vladeck told CNN, sending the case back could quite possibly “open the door to serious disagreements among the lower courts over when and under what circumstances business can refuse to serve same-sex couples.”
The Supreme Court did issue clear guidance in the Cakeshop ruling to other business owners who might find themselves across the counter from a loving, same-sex couple. Quoting from the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose recently announced retirement has many speculating about the future of LGBTQ rights: “It is a general rule that [religious and philosophical] objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”
My hope is that others who find themselves in this situation – as well as all those who rush in to speak about the situation in the public arena – will assume a good faith effort on the part of all involved. It’s OK to disagree on policy, but it should never get personal.
My son’s lost life is proof of the harm that comes from weaponizing each other’s beliefs. I understand, in a way that no father should, how hard it can be to stay civil when someone’s core convictions and true identity are up for debate. But it doesn’t move our society any closer to being more accepting to deny each other the equal right to live and be loved. A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is no more a choice than a person’s height or eye color.
In Matt’s memory, my wife, Judy, and I have dedicated our lives to working for equality, acceptance and respect for all marginalized communities, including the LGBTQ community. This is not to say my son was perfect – he was a typical college student in every sense – but I have never doubted that he loved his country and expected to be loved by it in all aspects, including the legal rights afforded to all Americans, both straight and gay.