Next week’s oral argument in Masterpiece Cakeshop involves a familiar story: Three customers walk into a small business that sells specialty foods. The owner is said to be an “artist” for his unique culinary skills and believes his religious convictions imbue his work. The owner turns the customers away entirely or denies them access to the full range of his products because these religious beliefs forbid him from serving a particular group of persons. When challenged in court regarding his refusal to serve the customers, the owner claims that the First Amendment should abrogate public accommodations laws and immunize his refusal to provide service.
I could be describing what happened in 2012 to Mr. Mullins, Mr. Craig, and Ms. Munn in Masterpiece when a shop essentially said “no cake for you” on the basis of sexual orientation. But I am actually describing what transpired in 1964 to three African American customers at a barbeque restaurant in South Carolina, which led to the Supreme Court’s seminal case addressing racial discrimination in public accommodations,Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400 (1968). It is déjà vu all over again.
That restaurant, Piggie Park, was owned by Maurice Bessinger, who was deeply religious and believed that serving Black customers or contributing to racial intermixing in any way “contravene[d] the will of God.” When a Black Baptist minister sought to enter the restaurant, Mr. Bessinger stood in the doorway to block him. On another occasion, when two other African Americans tried to patronize Piggie Park, Mr. Bessinger refused them access to a drive-in and would only allow them to purchase food if they abstained from consuming it on the premises. The customers sued, alleging that Mr. Bessinger’s refusal to serve them violated Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination in public accommodations.