It’s a neighborhood kind of thing. A give-and-take social exchange.

Let’s say, one day you and your family open up your heart’s dream: The Patty Cake Bakery. Don’t you think the name is cute as all get-out? You decorate and plan every detail, pass all the inspections, and fulfill all the requirements for handicap accessibility. At last, dressed in your best, your heart pounding — the grand opening!

The local chamber of commerce president cuts the ribbon and sends a lovely plant from the neighborhood florist. Smiles, handshakes and cheers all around. You’re in business. An entrepreneur. Wow!

Gradually, though, you are reading that other bakers in other cities are refusing to bake cakes for certain people because of their deeply-held beliefs. Well, you have fervently-held beliefs, too.

You begin to wonder if you have an obligation to serve people that you don’t particularly feel comfortable around. They are different. Maybe you don’t agree with what you believe is their lifestyle or their nationality or whatever. You wonder if your sincere beliefs should give you the right to decide to whom you will sell your creations.

After all, you built the business from scratch. You and your family scrimped and saved to open Patty Cake. Does anyone have a right to force you to, say, make a wedding cake for people whose lives offend you? Are you losing control over the business that is your life and livelihood?


Now, an attorney could give you all the tort technicalities but, for a moment, let’s let go of the legalities and look at it from the standpoint of social functioning, neighbor-to-neighbor, and just making our town a nice place to live in, to work in, or to visit.

You opened for business and hung the “Welcome!” sign on your front door with great hopes of success, and society was ready to support you. The roads were paved, the sidewalk led to your front door, the street lights were on. In winter the sidewalks and roads are cleared. The government infrastructure exists, however imperfectly, to see that you, your family and Patty Cake become an integral part of the neighborhood, serving your neighbors, helping to make our community a welcoming place.

But let’s just say you decide that your fervently-held beliefs excuse you from the give-and-take in this social exchange.

And then, one day, you need help.

Should you discover your front door shattered when you open one morning, I promise you that the police officer, who happens to be a Muslim, will do everything he can to investigate.

I promise you, the gay fireman will risk his life, along with everyone in his department, to save you and the business of your dreams if the kitchen catches fire.


And should you be rushed to an emergency room with angina from overwork, I promise you that the surgeon who is a lesbian will join with the rest of the hospital staff to give you the best possible care, even if last June you chose not to bake a cake for her wedding.

You see, all of them pay taxes to support the social systems that help make it possible for you to do business and, in exchange, each of them wants to be able to share your delicious confections.

What is the alternative to such a give-and-take society? What do we end up with when business owners can refuse service to anyone they choose? After all, should you have to pay for accessibility for people in wheelchairs? Why can’t the druggist refuse to fill a prescription for medications for the man with HIV, or birth control pills for a woman, if doing so violates his personal beliefs?

Would this be a place any of us want to visit, no less live in?

Society’s promise is called public accommodation. It’s the civil way of saying that when you open for business in the public sphere, you are obligated to serve the public. All of the public.

It’s a win-win exchange. Each of us takes, and each of us must give. It does not always function perfectly, some people take a while longer to see the whole picture from their front door but, day by day, we are coming closer to a more perfect union.

Because when we take neighborliness out of the neighborhood, it just isn’t a nice place to live.

Lew Alessio is a behavioral health supervisor and life-long civil rights advocate. He and his husband, Jim Shaffer, live in Greene.

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