I never expected my weekly morning ritual of coffee and crepes at a popular local coffee shop would be interrupted by a vulgar, verbal attack that would make national headlines.
On Sept. 11, a cafe employee in Lincoln, Nebraska, named Natalie Weiss recognized me from across the room as an employee of the Nebraska Family Alliance. We’re a local nonprofit that winsomely seeks to protect the unborn, combat human trafficking, support families, and champion everyone’s First Amendment freedoms.
As I soon learned, Natalie, who is transgender, disagrees with many of our views.
After seeing me, Natalie approached me without provocation and began to curse at me for who I am, what I stand for, and the work I do. As other patrons in the crowded shop watched, Natalie called me “f—-ing bigoted trash,” demanded I leave, and shouted that if I tried to return, I’d be refused service.
I was stunned by those hateful words. I’ve always treated the employees of this cafe with respect and courtesy and never broadcast my political beliefs in the shop.
During my lunch break, I shared my experience with my Facebook friends. Within hours, my story had attracted hundreds of comments and made the local news. I soon learned Natalie had been fired for that outburst.
I received considerable support and an apology from the coffee shop owners, but I also received hateful messages, including graphic death threats from complete strangers.
This isn’t the Nebraska I know, love, and proudly call my home. This isn’t the best our diverse and tolerant country can offer. We can do better. We have to.
People who know me can tell you I believe in God, hold a conservative worldview, value the dignity of every human being, and treat people with care. These personal values are why I chose to study political science and spent my undergrad years working in political, government, and policy-related internships, leading to my current job.
Nebraska Family Alliance has received unfair slander in recent days. If even a fraction of the negative stories about our group were true, I wouldn’t work there.
I joined this team because it advocates—carefully and kindly—for policies that serve all Nebraskans. I don’t expect everyone to share my beliefs, but I do welcome rational debate and reasonable discussion.
Some people have suggested that a barista berating me and threatening to deny me future service is no different from a cake artist or a florist declining certain requests that contain messages they would prefer not to celebrate, design, or promote. But it’s incredibly different.
The artists in recent major court cases simply didn’t want to speak messages that violated their convictions. The cafe employee in my case, however, had no such burden.
Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman are business owners who treat all clients with respect and kindness. They serve everyone who walks through their doors. And, like any other business owner, they run their small businesses consistent with their mission and values.
Jack will sell you anything he has made, but he won’t custom-design cakes celebrating Halloween, bachelor parties, or same-sex weddings.
Barronelle happily served a gay customer for nearly 10 years before she told him she couldn’t create custom floral arrangements to help celebrate his wedding. To this day, she says she’d gladly welcome him back.
Both of these business owners, and others like them, have been dragged through long legal battles and repeatedly threatened simply because they don’t want to be forced to create messages or celebrate events they don’t agree with.
If I asked a printer to design a poster for a Nebraska Family Alliance event and they objected to the message, I would understand their decision and go to another business. Tolerance goes both ways, and civil disagreement and discourse on important issues facing our country is a necessary component of a pluralistic society like ours.
I know what it’s like to serve people who don’t agree with me. During high school and college, I worked for a restaurant for seven years and served LGBT patrons. I enjoyed serving delicious barbecue to all my guests.
If I had the chance to serve Natalie, I would do so—and happily—regardless of our differing worldviews.
As Americans, we will inevitably disagree on political and policy issues. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to peacefully express our ideas and promote what we believe. It also protects our freedom not to participate in speech and events that promote things we don’t believe.
This freedom and the ability to have civil discourse is what makes our country the best nation on earth. Every person should be treated with dignity and respect and not suffer unjust discrimination.
But disagreement isn’t discrimination. We have to be able to discuss our disagreements without cursing, threatening, or banning each other from communal spaces.
I know this kind of shared, diverse society is possible because I’ve participated in it. I have friends who believe I’m wrong in my convictions. We not only coexist and tolerate each other’s differences, we grow and learn from each other.
These are the friendships that make democracy thrive, ones that I hope we all value and pursue.
I enjoy sipping coffee and savoring crepes surrounded by my neighbors who may believe differently than I do. That’s a wonderful thing, and I hope we never lose it.