Distinguishing Morality from Ethics in the Wedding Debates

Picture this: The scene is Gresham, Oregon, January 17, 2013. A woman walks into Sweet Cakes Bakery and cheerfully exclaims to the owner, Aaron Klein, that she is about to marry and would like to order a wedding cake. This is a return order from a satisfied customer since the woman’s spouse-to-be ordered a cake not very long ago for her mother’s wedding.

When Klein learns that this cake is meant for a same-sex wedding, however, he refuses the order, and tells the woman that he must first live in accordance with his religious beliefs protected by his First Amendment rights granted by the U.S. Constitution. According to reports from local station KATU, Klein argued that he would rather close down his business than “be forced to do something that violates my conscience. I’d rather have my kids see their dad stand up for what he believes in than to see him bow down because one person complained.”

Sweet Cakes has certainly left a bitter taste for this couple who are considering lodging a formal complaint since the Oregon Equality Act of 2007 protects residents from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The tradition of the wedding cake dates back centuries. It symbolizes the anticipation of a sweet life together. The couple cut the confectionary delight hand-in-hand representing their first of many combined and cooperative undertakings in marriage. They feed each other a piece to show their joint commitment.

Now picture this: The scene is Des Moines, Iowa, 2011. A joyous and excited engaged couple, in preparation for their upcoming nuptials, entered Victoria Childress’s home bake shop for a taste testing appointment for their wedding cake.

When the couple entered Victoria Childress’s shop, she inquired who was getting married? A member of the couple, Janelle Sievers, told the baker that they were, she and her partner Tina Vodraska. Upon hearing this, Childress informed the couple, according to published accounts: “I’ll tell you I’m a Christian, and I do have convictions. I’m sorry to tell you, but I’m not going to be able to do your cake.”

Later, according to Janelle, “I don’t think either one of us knew what to say. We were just shocked.”

Interviewed by a reporter for local TV station KCCI, Childress gave her reasons: “I didn’t do the cake because of my convictions for their lifestyle. It is my right as a business owner. [I]t’s to do with me and my walk with God and what I will answer [to] him for.”

The Iowa State Supreme Court in 2009 voted unanimously to uphold a lower court ruling legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, preceded by the Iowa Legislature, which amended Iowa’s Civil Rights Act in 2007 to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the areas of employment, housing, education, and public accommodations. Janelle and Tina have yet to decide whether they will file a civil law suit.

Now picture this: The scene is the small Virginia town of Central Point in Caroline County in 1958, when childhood friends fall in love and marry across the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Virtually the entire town attends the reception festivities in the Central Point home of one of the partners, whose family invited the young couple to live with them until they could afford a home of their own.

Soon afterwards, as the couple sleeps peacefully embracing in their bed, local police officers crack the silence by abruptly storming the room, guns poised, flash light beams temporarily blinding the couple who suddenly find themselves shacked in handcuffs as they march terrified to the town jail.

“Richard,” asked Mildred, “what did we do wrong?” Richard could only shake his head in bewildered astonishment, though they both know why they had been brought there. Richard Loving, a man of European descent, and Mildred Jetter Loving, a woman of African descent, married in a state that passed and retained its anti-miscegenation statute, the so-called “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, making it unlawful for a White person and a Person of Color to engage in sexual relations.

At the trial, the judge, Leon Bazile, convicted and sentenced them both to one-year imprisonment with a suspended sentence on the condition that the couple leaves the state of Virginia for a period of 25 years. Staring at Richard and Mildred during the sentencing, Bazile invoked Biblical justifications to convict the couple: “Almighty God created the races — white, black, yellow, Malay and red — and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.”

Mildred and Richard filed a number of law suits taking their case all the way to the highest court in the land. In the case of Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), the Supreme Court of the United States declared the state of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute unconstitutional, thereby overturning Pace v. Alabama (1883), and ending all race-based legal restrictions on adult consensual sexual activity and marriage throughout the U.S.

I mention these three cases in an attempt to distinguish two vital concepts. The first is the issue of morality, which I see based on our values and our set of beliefs derived by some from religious faith traditions, and by others from secular humanist principles. We live in a country that protects all of our moral belief systems, which no one has the right to take from us. Our beliefs are our own to cherish and to live by as long as we deem fitting. Some people may refer to “morality” as the “Golden Rule,” whereby we treat others how we want to be treated.

A closely aligned but also somewhat distinct notion is the concept of ethics. For me, this applies to what some refer to as the “Platinum Rule,” whereby we treat others how they want to be treated. We consider their needs, their best interests, their values and beliefs, even if these do not necessarily connect or bond with our own.

As a university professor of pre-service teacher education students, I raise the distinction between moral convictions and professional ethics when we discuss issues of controversy within the field of education. For example, I discuss how as teachers, they may find their moral teachings in opposition to the beliefs or lived experiences of their students. For example, their students may “come out” to them as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or they may live with same-sex parents or guardians. Or some of their students’ parent(s) or care givers may be undocumented workers. Or students may be followers of faith traditions they may neither understand nor approve. As teachers, however, they have ethical obligations to serve all their students with the highest degree of professionalism and to treat them equitably.

With this backdrop, then, I ask us, how would the Oregon couple, Janelle and Tina, and Mildred and Richard wish to be treated, and what would be in their best interests? You be the judge.