September 30, 2010

City Market vendor could lose lease for turning away gays

Bakery faces investigation after saying no to rainbow cookies

By Bill McCleery

The owners of a cookie shop that has operated for more than two decades inside the Indianapolis City Market could face eviction.

But it's the reason behind that possible eviction that is raising provocative questions that pit the rights and moral beliefs of a business owner against the obligation of the city to do all it can to prevent discrimination and encourage tolerance.

The city is investigating whether the owner of Just Cookies engaged in discrimination last week when he cited moral objections to homosexuality as his reason for declining a customer's request to provide rainbow-iced cookies for a "National Coming Out Day" event planned for Oct. 7 at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

"That could be grounds for taking away their stand in the market," said Wayne Schmidt, president of the City Market Board, who said Just Cookies is on a month-to-month lease. "I'd hate to lose them, but we can't tolerate any kind of discrimination like that."

A spokesman for Mayor Greg Ballard said the city's Office of Equal Opportunity is looking into the matter because it involves a tenant of a city-owned property.

"The mayor was certainly dismayed and wants to make it clear that a person's values, morality and personal beliefs are absolutely not relevant to making a purchase at the City Market," said Robert Vane, the mayor's deputy chief of staff.

David Stockton, who owns Just Cookies with his wife, Lily, said Wednesday that he told a caller to the bakery that he did not feel comfortable preparing a special order for a group that endorsed homosexual activity. He told the caller he wanted to set what he believes is the right example for his two daughters.

That caller was Heather Browning, IUPUI's coordinator of social justice education in the Office of Student Involvement.

"A gentleman explained to me that they would not be able to support it due to their moral values," Browning said.

Lily Stockton said Wednesday that any moral issues aside, "we no longer do special orders like that. We are too busy."

But that apparently was never communicated to Browning, nor was it cited as a reason by David Stockton for denying the request.

Micah Clark, who heads the American Family Association of Indiana, said the Stocktons have nothing to apologize for -- and that business owners should be well within their rights to refuse such special requests on moral grounds.

Clark said he planned to contact the Stocktons and see whether they might be interested in any legal assistance that his organization could provide.

"You have to wonder, what rights do business owners have?" Clark said. "It's one thing if someone walks into a store and buys a cookie off the shelf, but (the Stocktons) were being asked to become part of the (National Coming Out Day) celebration.

"To make rainbow cookies for a special event with which the company has a disagreement -- I think that goes beyond the pale of what we should expect companies to do."

Vane, however, said sexual orientation is one of the categories in which discrimination is specifically forbidden by city ordinance. Further, he said, the publicly owned City Market is not a place where officials would allow discriminatory practices.

Just Cookies' lease expired July 31, and the owners have been operating on a month-to-month lease since that time, said Schmidt, the president of the City Market Board.

"If someone wants to run a business based on an exclusionary business model, that's their call and they have to take their chances," Vane said. "But if you're going to do business in the City Market, that sort of practice is simply unacceptable."

Lily Stockton said Wednesday that anyone may buy cookies from the trays on the bakery's shelves.

"I don't ask people about their sexual orientation," she said. "Everyone is welcome to come buy our cookies."

But whether everyone still wants to may be another issue for the Stocktons.

The president of Indy Pride Inc., which was formed to fight discrimination against gays, said he was saddened when he heard about the incident.

"It's kind of tragic that that mentality still exists in Indianapolis if it's true they had issues with it being a (gay-oriented) event," said Scott VanKirk, 39, Indianapolis. "And it's just not smart business."

E-mails have circulated among gays in Indianapolis, exhorting consumers to take their business elsewhere, he added.

"I don't want to see the fall of small businesses trying to make it Downtown," VanKirk said, "but come on. A good chunk of the community with expendable dollars Downtown is going to be the (gay) community."

In the end, the IUPUI organizers of the gay and lesbian celebration took their request and their dollars elsewhere.

They ordered rainbow-themed cupcakes from another Indianapolis bakery, The Flying Cupcake.

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