Is Use Discrimination Unlawful if Customers are Treated Equally?

Is Use Discrimination Unlawful if Customers are Treated Equally?

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By Jay Marshall Wolman 

There has been significant commentary in the blogosphere about a recent order out of Oregon allegedly imposing a gag order on a bakery that expressed an aversion to same sex weddings. I’ll leave the First Amendment analysis to Ken White at Popehat and Eugene Volokh as linked above. 

I’m a little more concerned with the order’s analysis of the discrimination claim itself. The Labor Commissioner did not undertake the traditional McDonnell Douglas test for discrimination. Now, this might not be an Oregon requirement, but there was no real analytical framework. This is usually important in determining if the acts were discriminatory. 

This case involved statements by the owners expressing an aversion to making cakes for same sex weddings. Let’s assume the easier case: an express policy against catering such weddings.  Is that unlawful? Why?

The statute prohibits announcing you will deny services “on account of …sexual orientation “.  ORS 659A.409. Technically, and it is unclear anyone argued this, no one is denied service on account of their orientation. Rather, the customers are denied service for the nature of the wedding. In most weddings, parents pay for the cake. This bakery would likely sell a cake to gay parents for their straight son’s wedding and refuse to sell to straight parents for their gay son’s wedding. No paying customers are denied on the basis of their orientation. The statute doesn’t address associational discrimination. Disparate treatment discrimination is not implicated and thus the bakery policy announcement of discrimination against same sex weddings, but not necessarily gay customers, would seem to be lawful. [Arguably, the conduct/person analysis of Elane Photography could suggest that it constitutes disparate treatment, but I believe that the conduct/person distinction is more suited to disparate impact analysis. The New Mexico Supreme Court in that case conflated Constitutional Equal Protection analysis with the statutory interpretation frameworks of disparate treatment and impact.]

The policy clearly has a disparate impact; there’s bound to be a spate of older gay couples now paying for their own weddings. However, the Commissioner did not address disparate impact theory, which may or may not be available under Oregon public accommodation law.  Thus, it may be the right outcome but for the wrong reasons. 

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