(This is re-posted from my Facebook page, where many comments can be found.)
As I graduated from an all-white South Carolina private academy that my parents helped found in defiance of school integration, I have much to atone for on Martin Luther King Day, as on every day. Today I am thinking about the Piggie Park defense, an old Palmetto State tactic that some Christians are attempting to revive in the 21st century, as a weapon against queer people.
Piggie Park is a Columbia-area barbecue chain whose founder, the late Maurice Bessinger, refused to serve black people. Spurned customers filed suit in federal court in the year of my birth, 1964. The case, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court on the narrow but important point of attorney’s fees. The larger point Bessinger had tried to make didn’t even reach the Supremes, having been a loser in the first round. To serve barbecue to black people, Bessinger argued, would violate his Christian beliefs; therefore, he argued, civil-rights legislation trampled his First Amendment religious freedoms.
The late William Price Fox, my undergraduate creative-writing professor at the University of South Carolina, loved telling this story, and always claimed the judge’s response to Bessinger’s argument was, “’Tain’t good enough, Maurice,” a sentence I sadly am forced to concede cannot be found in the published federal opinion. Fox was, however, vividly and accurately paraphrasing what the opinion does say, which is this:
Undoubtedly defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens. This court refuses to lend credence or support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that to do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs.
Let us fast-forward now to the 21st century, when the Piggie Park defense is being (pardon the pun) trotted out again by the “Preserve Freedom, Prevent Coercion” statement. The 80-plus “prominent religious and thought leaders” who have signed this – almost all of them men, among them Franklin Graham and the archbishop of Baltimore – argue that all civil-rights protections for queer people are inherently unconstitutional because Jesus. That’s a paraphrase, of course – one I hope Fox would appreciate – but hey, read the statement yourself, if you have the stomach. Then re-read Judge Simons’s opinion I quoted above, from 1966. Substitute for “Bessinger” any bigot du jour, and substitute for “members of the Negro race” the phrase “queer people.” That’s the best rebuttal to Graham et al, and it was written a half-century ago. You might mention that, the next time you run into the archbishop of Baltimore in the 7-Eleven, or into Franklin Graham at some inauguration or other.
It’s getting toward lunchtime as I type this, and I must confess, at the risk of my queer-allied soul, that if you set a plate of Piggie Park barbecue in front of me right now, I gladly would eat it. But I never again will swallow the Piggie Park defense, no matter what sauce you put on it. I’ve had my fill of that already.