The Right to Discriminate – It’s Not About Being Gay or Racist

An Alexandria gym terminated the membership of white nationalist Richard Spencer last week after another gym member confronted him with his racist views. Quite naturally, the private company used its right to discriminate. The media generally applauded the gym’s decision.

On the other hand, various court decisions according to which Christian bakers and florists were legally required to bake a wedding cake resp. to provide wedding bouquets of flowers for gay couples have sparked a huge controversy about the issue of discrimination for religious reasons.

Two different types of discrimination

Some people have argued that those court rulings would also apply to the (more theoretical) case in which a Jewish baker refuses his services to a neo-Nazi.

With good reason, however, our society distinguishes between the discriminatory actions and their underlying motivations.

In fact, there is a huge difference between being gay and being racist. We can even argue that they belong to different moral categories. Being gay is concerned with sexual orientation. In contrast, racists define themselves through their hatred towards a certain group of people. The former is an involuntary condition; the latter is a freely chosen political ideology. Also, a Christian baker invokes his religious beliefs, while a Jewish baker rejects to serve a neo-Nazi based on the historical experience.

So, the whole analogy with the Jewish baker somehow seems to collapse on closer inspection. We could close the case here. However, there is good reason not to do that too prematurely.

Reasons to allow discriminatory actions nevertheless

There are – at least – four reasons why discrimination should be allowed even in the cases of the Christian baker and florist:

    • Discrimination is ubiquitous: Admittedly, to discriminate people is not a nice thing. However, it is part of life. When decisions are made, discrimination ensues quite naturally. For example, a restaurant that has only five tables with ten seats has to turn down the eleventh guest; an employer cannot offer more work than she actually needs. If she does so blithely, she will likely go out of business; and so forth. Moreover, the right to discriminate is quite obviously not reserved to companies but it is also an important right of consumers. No one would argue that consumers are required to shop at a certain bakery or flower shop.
    • Prevention of harm, not causing harm: The task of the government is to prevent harm between its citizens. To deny services to a person almost never poses great harm to that person. On the other hand, forcing people to do something is a discriminatory action in itself; it is a full-fledged attack on the freedom of association. In fact, people in a free society shouldn’t arbitrarily come up with entitlements to the services of someone else.
    • There should be no control of the mind: To criminalize decisions that are based on strong motivations, such as religious beliefs, is a dangerous path that could end up on a slippery slope. It unduly prevents people from speaking their mind. It is even a form of “compelled speech” since bakers and florists are forced to provide their services.
    • The whole legal intervention could backfire on minorities: Most importantly, instead of protecting minorities and disenfranchised groups from being discriminated, anti-discrimination policies will likely effect more discrimination: Because laws increase the cost of compliance, private companies will try to find ways to reject members of minorities on spurious grounds. For example, individuals belonging to vulnerable groups, such as older employees, already have difficulties to get a job because labor laws overly protect them from being fired; doctors don’t accept patients because they cannot provide the language translations required by the law; finally, families don’t find an apartment because the requirements to terminate their lease are prohibitively high. In the end, anti-discrimination laws are much more harmful for the legitimate interests of minorities and disenfranchised people. Or, in the words of Dan Sanchez:

“Authoritarian restriction is a game much better suited for the mighty than for the marginalized.”

Bottom line

The right to discriminate should be considered permissible for whatever reason. It only applies to the private sector, however, be it in professional or more personal dealings. Ultimately, deliberately forgoing business opportunities or being racist are costly behaviors in the market place.

Government services, in contrast, are strictly bound by the constitutional principle of equal treatment. This hasn’t always been the case, as the history of the segregation laws in the U.S. teaches us, and it should therefore be emphasized here.

We should never force a Jewish baker to engage with a neo-Nazi – in any way. This is probably common sense. However, just as little as we punish a gym that terminates its contractual relationship with a racist member, we should forbid the Christian baker (florist, photographer, …) to turn down a gay couple. Personally, I don’t welcome the baker’s decision. However, it is simply not up to me to determine the generally accepted boundaries of the right to discriminate; and neither is it to anyone else.