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Why it's OK to tell Sarah Sanders to leave a restaurant but not OK to refuse someone a gay wedding cake

Douglas Robertson

Sarah Huckabee Sanders coverage begins at 1:30 mark above

Late last week, Sarah Sanders became the third Trump staffer to be deprived of a meal by a restaurant. The White House Press Secretary was asked to leave by the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington by the owner Stephanie Wilkinson, who, as well as citing comments that Sanders had made previously about Trump's ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, went on to later explain that various LGBT+ staff at the restaurant were apprehensive about serving the White House official.

A former White House ethics chief has since pointed out that Sanders using her official @PressSec Twitter account to criticise the Red Hen contravened the usual ethics code, but that hasn't stopped Donald Trump himself following up her complaints with his own tweet today which speaks for itself: "The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!"

When I first heard about this, I must confess that wasn't entirely sure whether I could stand by Wilkinson; Sanders was in the restaurant with her whole family and this unceremonious ejection seemed rather clumsy. The more I’ve thought about it subsequently, though, the more I have begun to understand why Wilkinson made the decision she did, and just how brave it was.

Sanders is one of the most powerful people in the Trump administration, having the ear of the president and wielding real political influence in the US. She is immensely privileged, and has made a conscious decision to pursue the career she has working for an administration which presumably tallies with her views – unlike the civil servants, cleaners, even the members of the armed forces who now work de facto for an administration they may deeply disagree with.

In this context, then, for the owner of a restaurant to "uphold her morals" (as Stephanie Wilkinson put it) is a courageous act. Wilkinson might not have anticipated that Sanders would use her official @PressSec Twitter account to complain to her 3 million followers about the restaurant, but she doubtless had an inkling that there would be a pretty severe backlash of some description. Nevertheless, she exercised her right to not tacitly support the President by simply living and running a business in America.

Particularly galling in the discourse around this whole episode is the parallel that some people have chosen to draw between Wilkinson’s principled stand and the provision of goods and services to gay people.

In June, the Supreme Court in the US sided with a baker who refused to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple, and there is a similar case ongoing here – the Ashers case – with the Christian Legal Centre (the same organisation condemned by the judge in the Alfie Evans ruling) backing the defence for the baker.

There is no parallel here. When you refuse to provide a service to someone based on who they are, then that deserves condemnation. When you refuse to provide a service to someone based on what they are doing, and what their choices are, then maybe there is a place for that.

What Wilkinson did when she refused service to Sarah Sanders was to make a statement: she felt that by serving Sanders she would be seen as endorsing the actions of the Trump administration in which she is complicit. This is quite obviously very different to refusing to let somebody purchase a cake because of their identity, which essentially protests against who they are rather than anything they have done. The parallel is surely quite ludicrous.

Will the tide of American politics shift as a result of this gesture? Perhaps not. Still, as the world hurtles inexorably towards whatever oblivion seems to lie ahead, it is reassuring to know that there are people like Stephanie Wilkinson; people who are prepared – in whatever way they can – to hold people in power to account.

Sanders is hardly going to be going hungry, but whether it’s transgender folks in the military or children held captive crying in cages at the Mexican border, she remains an integral part of actions and decisions of the Trump administration – and frankly, if this is the only major consequence she faces for that, then she has got off remarkably lightly.