Friday, August 23, 2013


"My freedom ends where yours begins."  While my politics aren't quite as libertarian as they once were (the Tea Party drove the final nail in my idealism's coffin), I still regard that principle as a good starting point for evaluating public policy.  In an ideal society I should be as free as possible to conduct my life as I see fit, but that cannot include the freedom to impinge on your freedom.  Viewed another way, it's a corollary to the Golden Rule.

It's never quite that simple in real life, of course; the boundary between my freedom and yours is a hazy line at best.  But simply stated principles can still act as beacons to help us navigate through that haze.  Applying this principle we can, for example, quickly see through the flimsy claims of discrimination that religious right groups have begun hurling around in the wake of victories for LGBT rights.  Allegedly, by treating LGBT individuals as equals, society is infringing on the right of conservative Christians to treat them as inferiors.  It's a shallow claim that fools nobody, in part because we instinctively understand that principle.

But freedom does extend in both directions, which is why I get uncomfortable when I hear about cases like that of the New Mexico photographer who was sued for refusing to photograph a gay couple's commitment ceremony.  I say that not because I personally approve of the photographer's inhospitality, but because it raises issues surrounding freedom of association.

I do recognize the need for non-discrimination laws; the government (and its employees) must, in the name of justice, treat all citizens equally and apply the law without bias against disfavored groups.  Likewise, in matters of employment, housing and health care (and other essentials), denial of service on the basis of personal prejudice can cause undue hardship.

And I can see where, in some cases, a gay customer in a socially conservative region might find him- or herself unable to find any photographer (or baker, or electrician, or pet-sitter, etc.) who wouldn't discriminate.  For that reason I lean toward agreeing with the opinions of those courts that have ruled against the photographer and similar defendants, even though I'm not entirely comfortable doing so.

But it does still beg the question: are we willing to accept this interpretation of the law when the shoe is on the other foot?  Should a gay-supportive photographer be forced to accept the business of a fundamentalist pastor known for his fiery anti-gay sermons?  Should a bakery that celebrates diversity be legally obligated to bake a cake for a church that believes in white supremacy?

These questions are hypothetical, but I pose them as a reminder that anti-discrimination laws cut in all directions, and that each of us may one day find ourselves in the position of having to provide our services to someone that we find morally objectionable.  For the most part that's simply the price of living in a free society - but it behooves us to be certain now that we're setting that price at an amount that we ourselves are willing to pay.

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