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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Book deserts in the US

Unite for Literacy has put up an interactive map describing something I think should be shared widely: an interactive map of some 9,000 public library communities around the nation. Click on it to find the percentage of books in each service area household. A "book desert" is defined as a geographic region where more than 50% of the homes have less than 100 books. Book deserts are places where we can predict a whole host of things, like lower literacy, lower reading scores in school, lower academic achievement, lower graduation rates, lower educational attainment generally, and lower wages. These things are themselves linked to other things such as childhood health, longevity, and the likelihood of going to jail.

You can find the map here. Note that they also include areas of book abundance.

Full disclosure: they also put a link to my campaign for ALA president, at least until May 1, when then campaign is over! (And did you vote?) But no money changed hands, and I had nothing to do with the creation of the map. It's worth sharing widely, quite apart from their kind endorsement.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Castle Rock Christian demands anti-gay cake

You think I'm kidding. See this article.

Who knew that the cutting edge of intellectual freedom and religious freedom would be ... cake decorating? It would be funny if it weren't so sad. 

The bottom line: according to the article, a self-described "Christian" from Castle Rock, CO (the town where I live, alas) went to the Azucar Bakery in Denver to order a "Bible-shaped cake with hateful words about gays that he wanted written on the cake." This man also wanted the cake "to have two men holding hands and an X on top of them."

I like, very much, the actions of Marjorie Silva, the owner. She said she'd make the cake, but preferred not to write that particular message. She offered him icing and a pastry bag so he could do it himself.

Instead, the self-professed Christian filed a claim of discrimination with the Civil Rights Division of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. Why? Because he felt he had been discriminated against as a Christian.

What happened? The claim was rejected.

It's hard to know where to start with this one. But one thing seems eminently clear: this is a ginned-up case.

Nobody believes (to cite a few examples I've heard) that someone should be able to require that a Jewish deli provide food that contaminates a Kosher kitchen, or demand that ice cream parlors serve pancakes (thanks, Suzanne, for that one!).

Non-discrimination means that customers can ask for the usual range of services. Black people should be able to walk into a diner in the South and order off the menu. Gay spouses should be able to book a hotel room in Indiana. So not radical. So obvious.

It happens that I've known a few cake decorators in my time. They are often asked to do things that make them uncomfortable as individuals. One example: "I want Snoopy on my daughter's cake!" But Snoopy is a copyrighted character, and it would be flat-out illegal to provide such a cake. "I want a drawing of a naked babe, legs spread, on the cake for my brother's bachelor party!" and the middle-aged Baptist decorator (let's call her Denise) would ... rather not.

It's all so much simpler than you think. Bakeries sell cakes, and they offer a range of services beyond that. They have templates for what they decorate, and they can do those things well and quickly. Yes, Denise might well stretch her business to do an enthusiastic Confirmation message for a member of her church, and balk at an endorsement of Dan and Stan's nuptials. I'm OK with that: free speech doesn't mean you get to tell other people what they have to say. But Denise still has to sell cakes to anyone who wants to buy them, with the usual range of options.

It's also possible that someone feels so strongly about not wanting to give special messages for gay weddings or bachelor parties that they just say so up front. I'm guessing that gay couples and wild party caterers might then choose to go elsewhere. And I think that's OK, too. The "free market" (albeit not always so free, in my opinion) takes care of a lot of things. But not everything. 

What anti-discrimination means is that cake decorators can't just refuse to sell cakes to people they don't approve of. And diners have to serve the usual fare to anyone who comes in the door. And sometimes, that just wouldn't happen if the law didn't require it.

Finally, I've spent many hours of my life reading and thinking about the world's scriptures. So when Ku Klux Klan members demand that black bakers make cakes (for example) with a lynching decoration, or oh-so-clever litigants try to present straight white Christians as desperately besieged, I think: shame and shame.

Really, would it be so hard just to treat people as people? Would it be so much more painful to be kind rather than nastily clever? And do such angry demands present the face of faith likely to win converts to the best of their beliefs?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Indiana and ALA

Yesterday, American Library Association (ALA) President Courtney Young issued a statement about the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA) approved by the Indiana General Assembly, and signed by Governor Mike Pence. Since that action, Indiana has come under a lot of fire.

President Young's comments are right on, in my view. But I find myself wondering just what this law is supposed to do. Why is it needed?

Thus far, these are the cases I've heard of where people feel their religious faith compels them to deny service to someone:
  • a Knights of Columbus group doesn't want to rent its hall for a gay wedding.
  • a pharmacist doesn't want to sell birth control pills to an unmarried woman.
  • a cake decorator doesn't want to make a cake for a gay wedding.
  • a photographer doesn't want to take pictures of a gay wedding.

You can't help but notice that three of the four are about denying commercial services to gay people. Discrimination appears to be the point. I'd be curious to hear other examples.

None of these, please note, requires a minister of a faith opposed to gay weddings to conduct one. The state isn't telling religion what it must do. I'll even grant that the K of C is a religious group, and might well want to refuse to rent its hall for something else that violated a longstanding cause it espoused -- a request to host a pro-choice rally, for instance.

But the other cases seem intended only to deny services freely provided (as commercial services) to others, but deliberately withheld from a targeted class. For instance, pharmacists sell a host of drugs to customers. We shouldn't have to justify our lifestyles, or seek the approval of every store clerk every time we buy something from the open market. It's for sale or it isn't. The state isn't requiring religious people to buy products they don't use, or object to.

And I wonder: are religious beliefs and the right to honor one's conscience restricted to Christians? May Muslim taxi drivers refuse rides to women untended by male relatives? Does the state become the defender of religious condemnation, however that judgment is bolstered by scripture of whatever provenance? To put it another way, do civic institutions owe their allegiance to a host of religious texts, or to the Constitution?

Here's what I think ALA should do, in addition to a statement to our own members. I think we should write an open letter to the governor, and send it to key Indiana newspapers. It happens that ALA has scheduled its 2021 midwinter conference for Indianapolis. We should point out that our association has many members who are gay, and who now question whether they might be targeted as unfit for hotel or restaurant or health services consumption. That knowledge is likely to affect our attendance - and we depend upon that attendance for our own budgets.

We know that our contribution to a local economy is significant. When I go to an ALA conference - I attended a library conference in Indianapolis last year, as it happens, and enjoyed it very much - I wind up pumping at least $1,000 into hotels, restaurants, and transport. Our conferences pull 8,000 to 40,000 people to a town; an ALA conference has to be worth at least millions of dollars. Canceling is expensive for us - but our association also doesn't wish to be compelled to support values we abhor, particularly when it is our own members who would be actively discriminated against.

From our perspective, Indiana has broken faith with a fundamental American social contract: the idea that all people will be treated equally, if not with equal courtesy and respect (and wouldn't that be nice!), then at least with equal access to the public marketplace. If that is NOT the intent of the Indiana legislature and the Governor, then either repeal the RFRA, adopt explicit anti-discrimination laws to protect all of our members, or kiss our business goodbye.