As I’ve said elsewhere, discrimination part of life, and only causes problems when it occurs in a contentious area of social interaction. No one cares that I discriminate against Abercrombie & Fitch by not shopping there. People might care, but certainly wouldn’t notice if I stopped eating at a particular restaurant because the owner is Swedish unless I made a big stink about it. Even then, could the law compel me to eat there? Probably not.
But do the people on the other side of the counter enjoy the same freedom? If you’re in business, what rights to you have in who you serve and who you don’t? Suddenly things turn to varying shades of gray.
Suppose my daughter, ten years from now, decides she wants to get married. We sit down with a photographer to work out a deal for her to photograph the wedding. Everything is proceeding just fine until I mention we want to start with pictures at the temple after the ceremony. Suddenly the photographer’s grows quiet, claims she just remembered she has another shoot that same day across town and she won’t be able to get to our event in time. She declines to do the shoot. Consider this is scenario #1.
Scenario #2: Same situation. We’re discussing details with the photographer, and at the mention of the temple ceremony the photographer suddenly grows quiet, apologizes, and says she can’t do the shoot, without giving reasons.
Scenario #3: Same situation. When the temple comes up the photographer frowns. “Oh, you’re LDS,” she says. “I have to admit I’m uncomfortable doing LDS weddings, and while I could do it, I’m afraid my discomfort might color my work and result in pictures we both wouldn’t be satisfied with. I would encourage you to hire someone else.”
Scenario #4: Same situation, but this time the photographer says, “Oh, you’re LDS. I disagree adamantly with the Church’s stance on women and the priesthood, and I’m afraid that until the Church allows women to hold the priesthood also I must refuse to do LDS weddings. It’s nothing personal, but my taking this gig would be construed as tacit support for sexism, and I can’t do that.”
Scenario #5: Same situation, but this time the photographer says, “Oh, you’re a *%$* Mormon?! I can’t stand Mormons! They’re the most dispicable people I’ve ever met, and I want nothing to do with you! I would rather eat horse**** than take your money or set one foot on your temple grounds!” She then packs her things without another word and leaves.
Scenario #6: Different situation. A customer comes into my video game store, and I recognize him as someone I’ve been warned about by a competitor with whom I have good relations. The competitor claims this person has been known to trade in games knowing that they don’t work or are bootleg copies. Can I refuse to do business with this person knowing what I know?
Scenario #7: A customer comes into my game store, and I recognize him as someone who has repeatedly tried to sell me games that don’t work in the past. Can I refuse to do business with this person?
Scenario #8: (Fictional, but based on recent news) Ted Nugent is approached by the Democratic National Committee to perform at their next convention. Ted Nugent–not a Democrat–refuses to perform, even when offered $1 million.
Scenario #9: (Based on an April Fools Day prank) Lady Gaga is invited by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to perform in their yearly Christmas Concert (and share a cut of the subsequent album proceeds), but she refuses, citing disagreement with the Church’s beliefs.
As a supplier of goods and services, what are your rights? What is proper behavior? When can you discriminate rather than go against your personal beliefs? When is refusal to offer someone service discrimination, and when is it Political Speech? There is a case in Washington wherein a florist has been sued by the state for refusing to provide floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding, citing her religous beliefs as the reason. The Washington Attorney General cites the state law that forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
What is especially interesting in this case is that the same sex couple have reportedly been customers for around a decade. The florist evidently has not discriminated previously on the basis of their sexual orientation. It’s only their same-sex marriage she objects to. Since the subject of same sex marriage is still very much in question nationally, and a hot political topic, would the florist been okay had she chosen to say no, citing political reasons and claiming she was sending a message to the Supreme Court?
Or, for that matter, would the florist have been okay had she simply declined and given no reason at all? Considering she had never had a problem serving this couple before, it might have been difficult to prove discrimination. Are we creating a system where being truthful is punishable, but lying or failing to give reasons at all is just fine?
Now, some rhetorical questions for the florist. Would her relationship with Christ also cause her to refuse to sell flowers to a man she knew was buying them not for his wife, but for his mistress? Would she similarly refuse to provide flowers for a wedding of a known drug kingpin? Would she provide flowers for the National Porn Actors Guild yearly banquet? Would she provide flowers for Larry Flint’s funeral? Now, admittedly I don’t know this woman’s specific form of Christianity, but I would find all of these situations equally against my beliefs, so unless I am willing to decline to serve all of these various groups, can I really excuse my only saying no to one of them?
On the other hand, would I really want to hire a photographer I knew would be uncomfortable at my event? Would I be able to trust that the resulting pictures were the photographer’s best work? Even if they were acceptable, would I still feel cheated or discriminated against if I knew she was capable of better? And at what point in that original progression of scenarios would I have solid grounds to file a discrimination suit?
It’s interesting, too, in the Washington case that the couple in question supposedly respected the florists’ beliefs and accepted her decision initially. Only later did they decide they couldn’t accept it and filed a complaint with the Attorney General. The article doesn’t come right out and say it, but to my knowledge AGs’ offices can’t usually file a suit without a registered complaint. And how would they have known about it otherwise?
In the case of my daughter’s hypothetical marriage I can easily see myself following a similar path. Initially I would be shocked, then decide to respect the photographer’s candor. But I’m sure the incident would fester. I don’t know that I would go so far as to file a complaint with the AG, but I would not be happy about it. Perhaps I’m just used to people treating me badly because of my religion.
But would I really want to create a legal atmosphere where the photographer felt she could not refuse, regardless of how much she might want to? Would she spend the entire time worried that if the pictures didn’t turn out absolutely perfect I would then sue her over it? Would I want someone working for me under those circumstances?
Like I said, I don’t have answers, only more questions. At what point are we stepping beyond punishing unacceptable behavior and punishing unacceptable thoughts? At what point does forcing someone to do something against their beliefs become involuntary servititude? Even if they are accepting payment for it, if they are doing so against their will, does that make it right? At what point does my right to happiness encroach on your right to make a living? If I make it so that the only choice for photographers in Utah is to take pictures of Mormon weddings or not work at all (weddings can be lucrative, and often allow photographers to transition from semi-pro to pro), have I crossed the line from protecting my freedom of religion to imposing my religion on others? Can the same be said about protecting oneself from discrimination over sexual orientation and forcing support for that sexual orientation on others?
I have no idea where the answer lies. But if it’s true we cannot legislate morality, we also cannot legistlate conscience. We can’t sign a bill and change the way people think. We can certainly make certain acts illegal and punish them accordingly. But when there are both good and bad reasons for the same action we may make things a bigger mess if we try to slice things too fine. Can we really control who does business with whom, or do we just end up creating a bunch of skilled liars? Do we really want to be in the business of punishing the truthful and letting the liars go free? If so, can we really claim to value truth?
No answers. Only more questions.