Amherst News-Times columnist offering perspectives on politics, science and social issues.
Monday, August 6, 2018
298. Picking and choosing customers
A sign in the bakery window could have read:
Or maybe these might one day be more appropriate:
“Heterosexual Christians only.”
“Heterosexual Roman Catholic Christians only.”
“Heterosexual White Roman Catholic Christians only.”
I have wanted to write about this case for a while and the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the baker who, for religious reasons, refused to bake a custom cake for a homosexual couple, provides that opportunity.
The same-sex couple argued that Colorado law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The Supreme Court ruled for the baker; however, its decision was a narrow one, meaning that it only looked at a sliver of the laws that may eventually be affected. Although those on the right celebrated, the real issue is forthcoming, which Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote about in the majority opinion: “… these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”
This issue affects the rights of private businesses to choose their customers. Usually, they can do so uninhibitedly, except when the party is a member of a protected class. Choosing not to serve someone because he or she is wearing a LeBron James jersey is OK but choosing not to serve someone because he or she is black is not.
Classes based on gender, race, age, or sexual orientation, for example, are protected for two reasons: One, they are viewed as things that people can’t control, and two they are classes that have been frequently discriminated against in the history of this country — often harshly. The trump card, and also a protected class due to previous abuses, is religion, which unfortunately means people can claim almost anything as a “religious belief.”
Of course, it’s generally not good business to start chasing your customers away. But there is the question about the duty to our beliefs and values. If I owned a business, there are certainly people I would be uncomfortable serving. I don’t want the money from people who might hurt children or animals, for example.
Let’s turn this around. Suppose there were two Italian restaurants side by side and, feeling like pizza today, I had to choose. Generally, I like them both but one has a big “NRA for Trump” sign in the window and the other one has a “Health Care for All” sign in the other. Which one am going to choose?
A couple of years ago, when I was looking for a concrete company, I was not too excited when one of the business owners started talking about all the deer he kills. Why do I want to give him my money to support this hobby? Conversely, my neighbor advertised for a Christian landscaper — presumably because he wants to give his money to people who believe as he does.
Truthfully, when it comes to choosing a business, I would rather not know their political or religious beliefs. If I do, then undoubtedly it is going to factor in my decision. Similarly, businesses probably don’t want to know everything about their customers. Are you going to serve those engaged in domestic violence? What about those who kill animals for fun, drive drunk, or are too lazy to recycle? Like the opening paragraphs of this column, that customer list could narrow quickly.
This is a complicated issue. Do I bake cakes or do I only bake cakes for people who share my vision of society? Generally, I have a hard time faulting people who are true to their beliefs and principles. I would not want to bake a cake for a hunting festival or deliver one to a pig roast. Let someone else do it.
The challenge of course, especially when it comes to religion, is hypocrisy. I don’t know the extent of the baker’s faith, but I would ask — does he serve divorced customers, those who have committed adultery, or those who have stolen? Again, ignorance may apply, but before one discriminates based on religion, I would hope for a consistent application of those beliefs (the courts will test that).
For me, this issue presents more questions than answers. Because we do not truly know the motives or the authenticity of one’s beliefs, I believe that businesses should be able to choose their customers (at their own peril) and protected classes should continue to be legally free of discrimination.
The problem, as this case demonstrates, is when two protected classes meet.