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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 6, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 14
LGBT rights hang in the balance in two SCOTUS cases
Section One
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LGBT rights hang in the balance in two SCOTUS cases

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is not the only US Supreme Court case that could have a catastrophic impact on LGBT equality. Janus v. AFSCME is another case that could set LGBT rights back decades.

Masterpiece Cakeshop is about the Christian Colorado baker suing to set aside penalties imposed by Colorado civil rights officials for refusing to serve a same-sex couple ordering a wedding cake. If the high court rules that the bakers have a First Amendment right to refuse LGBT customers, all businesses would have a constitutionally protected pretext for anti-LGBT discrimination.

Mark Janus is an Illinois social worker who is suing to avoid paying a fee to AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) to cover the cost of representing him. The court is considered likely to rule that employees covered by a union contract can't be forced to pay the union for the costs of negotiating their employment contract if they disagree with the union's political agenda.

While it might seem like these two cases have little in common, the truth is that both cases revolve around the same flawed legal argument - the idea that money equals speech.

Both of these cases rest on the dangerous precedent set by the Supreme Court in 2010 in Citizens United. That case allowed corporations to bankroll political campaigns under the argument that campaign contributions equal free speech, and therefore corporations have an unlimited First Amendment right to 'speak' with their money.

The plaintiff in Masterpiece is arguing that accepting payment for a wedding cake, or any public accommodation, is the same as endorsing the beliefs of the customer. The plaintiff in Janus claims that payment for a service - the maintenance of his union contract - is an implicit endorsement of the political actions of his union.

While the impact of Masterpiece on the LGBT community is pretty obvious, the consequences of Janus will be no less severe.

In most states in the country, the only legal protection LGBT people have at the workplace is a union contract. There are thousands of LGBT teachers, custodians, office workers, and those in state and local government who will be directly impacted if their unions are weakened. Unions were the first national institutions to offer workplace protections to LGBT, people as well as the first to call for those protections to be enshrined in law.

Unions are also a major funding source for progressive causes - including, in this state, ballot measures that protected domestic partner benefits and established equal marriage rights. In the 2012 Referendum 74 campaign for marriage, SEIU (the service employees union) and UFCW (the food and commercial workers union) alone contributed well over $200,000 to the campaign. UFCW 21 also housed the campaign in its Georgetown headquarters.

In every election, working people in unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars to elect politicians who support their issues, but they also pour thousands of hours of volunteer time into those political campaigns. Weakening unions weakens the whole progressive movement.

Public sector jobs - government workers, teachers, social workers, and firefighters, for example - have the highest union density in the country, at about 35%, while only about 7% of private sector jobs are unionized. That's why Republican Party operatives and their allies on the Supreme Court are targeting public sector unions with the Janus case.

The Supreme Court opened a huge can of worms when it ruled that money equals speech in Citizens United. Working people in unions and LGBT people are just the latest targets to be undermined by this decision.

Already, unions in Washington state are organizing to fight back against the expected decision in Janus. In February, the Washington State Labor Council convened a meeting of more than 500 union and community activists to share ideas about how to cope with court-mandated 'right to work' rules. It's crucial for every LGBT union member - and all people in the broader community - to stand by their allies in organized labor at this time.

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