There’s a big stink lately over a bill in Arizona that would allow businesses to discriminate against homosexuals. Many gay rights activists are comparing the legislation to the discrimination against African Americans throughout the civil rights era. The supporters on the Right are framing this as an issue of religious freedom. Indeed the proposed bill is an amendment to the existing “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, and would allow business owners to deny service to gay and lesbian customers so long as the business owner was “acting solely on their religious beliefs.”
Now of course I’m not going to defend discrimination here. I personally wouldn’t patron a business that discriminates against customers on the basis of skin color, race, gender, sexual orientation, national original or what have you. Businesses that do so are rightfully condemned. But what always goes missing in these discussions is any acknowledgement of the freedom of association. This isn’t about religious liberty at all. In fact, religious liberty is just an outgrowth of the freedom of association. One either has the right to associate (or not associate) with whomever they want, or they don’t.
The freedom of association is one of those core freedoms that we exercise on a daily basis. When you host a dinner party at your house, you necessarily discriminate and invite some people and exclude others. Network news stations choose to let some people on air and not others. Universities choose to admit some people, including on the basis of their race and gender, and not others. Yet, we’re told the government or “society” has the right to dictate to businesses precisely how they associate with other people. But where does this right come from? Have we forgotten that businesses are private organizations (and private property) started by individuals using their own time, labor, and legitimately earned money? Just because businesses seek to serve the general public does not make them state-run “public” entities without the right to chose their associations.
For those who aren’t convinced, here’s a thought experiment ― should homosexual businessmen (or women) be forced to provide service to members of the Westboro Baptist Church?
I would expect nearly everyone to answer NO! Then why should it be the other way around?
There are much better ways of dealing with hatred and bigotry than threatening the bigots with violence and imprisonment. Really what’s worse ― being a bigot or throwing someone in prison for being a bigot? A civilized society would recognize the right of all individuals to associate or not associate with whomever they choose. Those who disapprove of how others exercise this right can exercise their freedom to not patron that business. Boycotts, social pressure, and ostracism are the correct way to deal with social problems like racism and bigotry. Society really needs to evolve past the knee jerk reaction to use threats of violence, actual violence, and imprisonment every time we disapprove of someone’s personal beliefs. If we do that, in time, the problem will correct itself.
As Thomas Paine wrote:
In those associations which men promiscuously form for the purpose of trade or of any concern, in which government is totally out of the question, and in which they act merely on the principles of society, we see how naturally the various parties unite; and this shows, by comparison, that governments, so far from always being the cause or means of order, are often the destruction of it.