What do we do when rights conflict? It’s a tough question.
Freedom of religion and equal protection under the law are two of our most important rights. And though most Americans agree that a government official has a responsibility to uphold the law even if her personal religious beliefs don’t agree with equal protection under the law, private business is a more difficult question.
Recently, a Muslim flight attendant refused to serve alcohol to a customer because of her Islamic beliefs. She’s not discriminating against someone who wants a beer, however, because she doesn’t want to serve alcohol to anyone. Besides, the airline could have another flight attendant serve the beer.
But florists and bakers who refuse to provide service at a gay wedding are discriminating because they would gladly serve a heterosexual wedding.
Most libertarians and liberals agree that a government official can’t refuse a marriage license. They often disagree about why, however. And they disagree about whether a florist can refuse service for a lesbian wedding.
Whether to expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a fight we’ll soon see in Congress. The law prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, sex, etc. Religious belief is not an exemption. But the law doesn’t protect LGBTQI people. In response, Congressman David Cicilline (a Democrat from Rhode Island) has introduced the Equality Act (H.R. 3185) to expand the law.
Libertarians are all about the individual’s right to do as she chooses so long as she respects the equal rights of others. But while liberals are also concerned about individual rights, their primary focus is fighting oppression.
Libertarians also oppose oppression. However, they opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and its expansion today, because they think business owners have a right to do with their private property as they choose. The free market will reduce discrimination because people will choose not to patronize businesses that discriminates.
If only life were that simple.
Conservatives oppose civil rights as well, but for different reasons. Right-wing politics is primarily focused on government support for traditional values with liberty pertaining to economics, gun ownership, and religion.
I do have three notable disagreements with liberals, however. One is that I don’t support going beyond equality under the law with government programs to ensure equality of outcome, which is social engineering.
I also have concerns about the rigid division of people into groups that are either oppressed, oppressors, or privileged (not directly oppressing others, but benefiting from unfair advantages). Such a view frequently denies that privileged groups face significant issues that need to be addressed. And it often denies that derogatory and simplistic attitudes by women against men is sexism, by minorities against whites is racism, and so on. This can enable and excuse certain types of bigotry.
Finally, I don’t share liberalism’s negative view of capitalism. But neither do I share the libertarian view that we don’t need regulations because a truly free market will clean up the environment and private charities will provide for the elderly, the disabled, and poor children.
Besides, a functioning economy is supported by legal protections for businesses such as limited liability, contract enforcement, and protection of private property (including police and fire protection).
Like many Americans, I don’t fit neatly into a particular political category. But I support expanding the Civil Rights Act to include LGBTQI individuals because I don’t think equality under the law exists if businesses are allowed to discriminate. Further, the law would extend the principles already established under the Civil Rights Act.
But what about a business owner whose religious beliefs conflict with gay marriage? A baker is not granting religious approval to a gay marriage by baking a cake. And a business (a “public accommodation”) has a responsibility to the public because it receives the state’s protections as noted above.
I think important exemptions, though, include churches and other religious institutions, as well as clergy who don’t want to perform a same sex wedding ceremony or give it religious sanction, and religiously oriented businesses even if they’re not a church as such.