An Extremely Red Hen
Jacob Flood (’21)-
Last Friday, a server at the Red Hen posted on Facebook that the owner of the restaurant had refused service to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. After the incident was confirmed the next day in a tweet by Sanders, the news quickly spread nationally, inviting people all over to examine the merits of refusing service.
The Red Hen is located just a few short blocks away from Washington and Lee’s campus. According to reports from students staying in Lexington for the summer, there has been support for the Red Hen, with flowers and signs being left outside the door thanking the establishment for its position. One sign says “thank you” and continues by claiming “that Lexington has no tolerance for intolerance.” Some on the right have criticized this action, calling it hateful and wrong to refuse to serve Sanders. This immediately calls to mind the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In this Supreme Court decision, it ruled that Jack Philips was allowed to refuse to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, who wanted a cake to celebrate their gay marriage. Philips disagreed with the idea of this on moral grounds and argued it would be an expression of his free speech to create a cake for the couple and therefore declined to do so. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ended up kicking the metaphorical can down the road by not addressing this specific question. It instead criticized how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission handled itself by arguing the Commission violated Philips’ religious freedom during the hearing.
Of course, as soon as anyone began to argue that the Red Hen was being discriminatory they were immediately labeled as hypocritical because of the conservatives’ position on the cake case. Some asked the question: How can you refuse service to a gay couple based on moral grounds, but also say it is wrong to refuse service to someone else based on a different “moral conviction?”
The answer to this lies in an examination of the situation. Philips refused to bake a cake because he did not want to use his free expression of speech to support something he did not believe in. He was not opposed to serving Craig or Mullins, and in fact was quoted in the Supreme Court decision saying, “I’ll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same sex weddings.” (Link to full Supreme Court decision) The point was he wasn’t opposed to a person, just an action he did not feel morally comfortable supporting. But in the case of the Red Hen, they told Sanders to leave simply because of who she was, not because of any action she had taken while at the place. If for some reason she had ordered the steak and potatoes but asked for them to be arranged in an offensive symbol, then the Red Hen would have a case for refusing service, at least under the mindset of the recent cakeshop decision. But this is all circumstantial as the Supreme Court has not truly ruled on this important issue yet.
This is not really a legal matter. Sanders has not expressed any intention of suing the Red Hen for not serving her, saying, “I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.” Regardless of your opinion of this President or his staff, actions like this should never be celebrated. Free speech is important, but just being rude to someone you disagree with for the sake of a political ploy is petty. As a Washington and Lee student, I am a part of the Lexington community for nine months out of the year. Personally, I have never been to the Red Hen, but their actions and the corresponding media attention don’t reflect the southern hospitality I have experienced over and over as a member of the Lexington community. I don’t mind if other people go there, and I am not going to go stand outside the restaurant harassing people who do decide to eat there. In the end, if you disagree with the Red Hen’s position, take your business to the Southern Inn or Haywoods, both of whom have publicly stated their support for a non-discriminatory policy that would not have allowed an incident like this to happen. Lastly, let’s not forget our goal should be to work together to solve problems in a civil manner. If you don’t like what happened last Friday, let the Red Hen know by going somewhere else for dinner.