Religious Freedom, Business Owner Rights, and Basic Human Decency
There’s been a lot of attention paid, lately, to the “religious freedom” bill in Indiana, and a similar one in Arkansas. I’m neither gay, nor religious, so it seems like I don’t have a horse in this race. However, I am a small business owner, so stupid reactions to this do hold a certain danger to me. I have some thoughts.
This is a complicated subject, so I’m trying to give every aspect its due.
Everybody Directly Involved In These Situations Is a Bit Dumb
Maybe that’s being uncharitable, but it’s definitely my gut reaction to this. I’m not looking to step on anyone’s toes, but subjects like this always involve a bit of walking on feet . . . so I’m just going to call it how I see it throughout.
Let’s get one thing straight, right out the gate: If you refuse service to a gay person, you’re stupid. Your job is to provide a service; don’t overcomplicate it. If you’re a gay person and try to force someone to provide a service, you’re also stupid. Smart people take their money to someone who isn’t a dick, tell their friends not to shop there, etc., but, come on here, if you force someone to bake you a cake under penalty of legal response, it’s going to be a crappy cake. And, if you’re really lucky, that last statement will only be metaphorical. Besides, forcing someone to do something they don’t want, regardless of whether or not their reason for not wanting to is unfair and stupid, is always a little bit of a dick move.
More to the point, the law or its lack has little practical weight. If a florist doesn’t want to, uh, florafy(?), a gay couple’s wedding, with the law in place, they can say, “No, sorry, it’s against our beliefs.” If the law is rescinded, or even if it isn’t (if the florist isn’t a few roses short of a dozen in the brain bouquet) they’ll say, “Oh no, I’m so sorry I’m booked/vacationing/restocking/doing my taxes/whatever that weekend, but I can put you in touch with someone else.”
So, practically speaking, this a fairly pointless hullabaloo–the issue’s going to come up only when a hyper-religious, unprofessional, business owner who’s too stupid to lie well meets an extremely pushy gay person who’s very insistent on giving a homophobe his or her money–however, there is the principle of the thing, and principle is important.
Before we go any farther, though, we need to look at one important point of contention.
The Moral and the Legal
We conflate these things often. We’re encouraged to, by the media, because it drives ratings, and the politicians, because it drives people to vote, but it’s a really bad habit. Legally speaking, the government exists to protect all the people equally. As far as I’ve been able to tell from researching it the Indiana law is neither as insidious as its detractors claim (or anywhere close) or as benign as its supporters claim (or anywhere close). The law cannot always be moral, and legalizing morality is intrinsically terrifying as a concept.
I think discrimination based on race, gender, etc. is morally wrong. And crazy stupid. However, discrimination is an important part of life. Actively discriminating between people is how we get things done. Every job interview is an act of discrimination, every date, and so on. The problem is simply which criteria it is morally okay to use as the basis of discriminating.
Clearly, most of these decisions are based on personal preferences and innate moral codes, making laws regarding discrimination are naturally problematic, practically and ethically. Practically, because discrimination is an act of intent inherently difficult to prove (How do you know if didn’t get the job because you’re a woman, or because the other guy just nailed his interview?), but also often unconscious as we all have biases we fail to adequately examine–it’s entirely possible for a woman not to get a job because her interviewer unintentionally let her gender color his (or her) subjective interpretation of the interview. Ethically, because legislating morality is essentially the majority enforcing their core beliefs on top of those of others; ironically, the exact same process which led to laws against homosexuality.
This isn’t to say the laws are not necessary, at times–life is not kind enough to provide for a every problem a perfect solution–simply these sorts of laws tend towards historical drift and general messiness.
The Business Aspect
The problem, for me as a business owner, is also morally subjective: I don’t think people should be discriminated against, but I also have a hard time warming to the notion that anyone should be forced to provide a service to anyone they don’t want to, whatever their reason. Really, both those things are pretty bad, aren’t they? There is not act which is not trampling on someone’s ability to live their life the way they want to. Ideally, we’d not need any legal recourse at all, and it would be handled morally. That would be great, if that road didn’t lead to color-coded separate drinking fountains, because people are jerks to each other.
The problem is, you can’t legislate people into not being dicks to each other. There’s always a way around it. Personally, I’m inclined to be nervous of a government opinion either direction. Laws intended to be legally clear-cut can be applied in ways unintended, and sometimes they squish people.
The Flipside Issue
Let’s look at two scenarios:
1) A gay man, Gary, asks a religious bigot baker named Bob to bake him a wedding cake, complete with two grooms on the top, and Bob refuses. Does Bob have the right to do so?
2) A bigot, Jeff, asks a gay baker named Bill to bake him a cake for his “Burning a Gay Guy in Effigy” party, complete with burning gay man on top. The baker refuses. Does the Bill have the right to do so?
The truth is there’s ambiguity here. You’ve got an opinion, and the moral choice isn’t difficult–but what about the legal one? The legal answer to both those questions is going to depend on the laws in place. A law that protects Gary in the first example could easily force Bill to bake the cake in the second. Or, alternatively, a law meant to protect Bob and Bill’s rights of free bake choice could leave Gary and Jeff both in the waiting room of the same civil rights lawyer after getting turned down. It’s entirely possible a poorly thought out law could leave all four of the men unhappy.
The point is, a law leaning too far towards protecting the business owner’s freedom of action, or the patron’s right to be served, could easily mess up life for both bakers and/or both patrons.
This does possibly affect me directly. If, say (and this is unlikely) Arizona passed a law that was too harshly geared towards the right of the patron to be served, might I find myself legally forced to write a book for someone? Let’s say someone hires me to write, Cooking With Queers: A Gay Cookbook, and then I find out it’s a book containing recipes for actually cooking gay people–would I find myself under threat of being sued for backing out? Am I stuck with it? As sure as I am that I do not want, and morally should not, write, Learn How to Juggle Babies in Ten Easy Steps, The Idiot’s Guide to a Really Great School Shooting, or Why You Should Definitely Vote Along Party Lines, I am even more sure that there are people out there who would love to see them written.
The Road Ahead
These are, uh, extreme examples, but my point is, I worry about emotional people overreacting and then passing laws which really screw me over. And other people. But, mostly me. I think it’s pretty clear Indiana’s law isn’t going to last the year, one way or another, and also that the underlying problem that caused it isn’t going away for awhile.
When in doubt, though, I place my trust in the third item in the title: Basic Human Decency. Social change is a matter of reaching out to those who haven’t made up their minds, and, let’s face it, outliving those who have. Still, the long-term resolution to all sides of this issue can only rest in the moral world. Legal measures pushing people in either direction are, at best, a temporary band-aid, and, mostly, just an incitement of the louder and less thoughtful voices across the board. Most gay and religious people already coexist in relative peace because they understand the simple fact that people can not like each other and still treat each other with some reasonable facsimile of respect.
The truth is, people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. The truth is, people deserve as much right to choose as possible, and sometimes there are conflicts. I’m not sure there’s a one size fits all solution to this. Like I said, life doesn’t always provide the option of perfect solutions. What I am certain of is that if we let anger, hyperbole, and deliberate miscommunication rule the debate, it’s going to screw over a lot of perfectly nice people on behalf of a handful of asshats acting under uncommon circumstances.
So please, regardless of where you fall on the issue, let calm and poise rule the day on this one. And have a little faith in basic human decency . . . and when in doubt, just don’t be a jerk.