Can The Religious Legally Discriminate?: The Answer Is Maybe…

Posted on September 21, 2011. Filed under: Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Personal, Politics, Religion, Social Justice |

As I labour away trying to research for my follow up posts on Woo Juice, I thought I might reblog this story from Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.  It’s a really nuanced issue- one that leaves me torn between opposing views:

Drawing Lines on Religion-Based Discrimination

The Chicago Tribune reports that a gay couple is suing two bed and breakfasts for refusing to rent facilities to them for a civil union ceremony.

The Beall Mansion in Alton told the Wathens via email that it “will just be doing traditional weddings.” The owner of the Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton wrote in an email to the couple: “We will never host same-sex civil unions. We will never host same-sex weddings even if they become legal in Illinois. We believe homosexuality is wrong and unnatural based on what the Bible says about it. If that is discrimination, I guess we unfortunately discriminate.”
Here’s the legal situation:

The couple filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, which investigated and found “substantial evidence” that a civil rights violation had been committed.

The August finding allows the Wathens 90 days to file a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission or take civil action in Circuit Court. The Wathens’ attorney, Betty Tsamis of Chicago, told the Tribune that her clients have chosen the latter path and will file lawsuits against both businesses as early as next week.

This action, should it proceed, could bring to the courtroom a debate over the boundary lines between religious freedom and discrimination in Illinois.

Read the rest of the post here.

I’m unsure how I feel about this.  I think there is a difference between an “Event”, like a wedding, ceremony, convention or meeting- and just being a person who happens to offend someone elses sensibilities.

I think that business owners should not be able to discriminate who stays in a hotel room, or who they serve in their restaurant.  I think holding an event at their premises is a different thing altogether.  At the same time,  I think turning away customers who want to hold a wedding- just because you don’t agree with the relationship- is stupid.  Though as I mentioned in the comments, I would like to have the right as a business owner to turn away certain groups for events I did not agree with.

Any thoughts on this?  John? Jeremy? Darwin?



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20 Responses to “Can The Religious Legally Discriminate?: The Answer Is Maybe…”

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There’s two aspects here. Religious institutions ought to be able to discriminate who may be employed within their structure. A Christian church shouldnt be force to hire Muslims, or Atheists. And an Atheist society or Mosgue shouldnt be required to hire a Christian or whatever. Its the freedom to associate with whom you choose.

Second. I think businesses (not governments) should be allowed to discriminate against anyone for any reason. Its their money, their investment, their property. If they dont like a certain group of people more than they love money, so be it. Besides, the free market would correct the businessman soon enough. If enough people think it is wrong what they do, there will be protests. Enough negative publicity would eventually shame them into doing business with everyone. But again, it’s their money, their investment, their property.

That’s how I see it.

You and I seem to draw a line in the sand in different places. I remember your post from June, and I almost linked to it in my own post.
Though there is a part of me that relates to libertarianism, I can’t agree that the only place people should expect equal treatment is in the public sector.
But I do see a fundamental difference between a hotel owner who refuses to rent a room to a gay couple and a hotel owner not agreeing to hold a gay wedding at their premises.
I am seriously torn on this issue. I feel like my answer might be different if the owner refused to hold a Jewish wedding ceremony, for example.
I’m not a fan of “free-market equality”- or whatever you want to call it when private citizens are allowed to be overtly discriminatory and society is expected to correct the behavior financially. I don’t think people have a right to withhold services because they don’t like the lifestyle, faith, sexuality, or otherwise of another person, unless the service is overtly religious or controversial in nature. I can’t support a society in which a restaurant can turn away a gay couple, Muslim couple, or Christian couple just because they don’t agree with their life choices. I wouldn’t even agree that a restaurant should be able to kick a customer out for behavior that would be tolerated from a different person or group. For example, if a restaurant owner tried to kick a gay couple out of a restaurant for holding hands- I think that is wrong. If they kicked Christians out for walking table to table handing out tracts and proselytizing- I’d be okay with that. As would I be if the Muslims threw prayer mats down and bowed to Mecca in the middle of the restaurant. As would I be if the gay couple started making out- but only if that behavior got straight couples evicted as well.

I don’t think anyone should be able to legally discriminate against persons being people. I think that line gets crossed when the nature of the relationship with the business is going to beyond any doubt involve things that are overt behaviors that are disagreeable to the owners. So eating- okay. Praying- not so much. Sleeping- okay. Ceremonies- not so much. Buying batteries- okay. Holding meetings- not so much.

As I said- I’m conflicted on this issue. I’m not married to my opinion here. I’ll accept reproof if it can be argued that I am drawing false lines. I wrote this post hoping for opinions. Your opinion was the one I most wanted- because I knew it would be a challenge to my own. I’d like to find someone who can honestly argue that discrimination is wrong under any circumstances- then our conversation could help me solidify a strong position.
So John: Convince me why I am wrong.

There is always more than one side to every story and I happen to agree with your sentiment on this, George. On the surface, I would agree that it is wrong to discriminate against a person with differences, but at the same time it’s also a shame that we get to a point where a lawsuit be involved. After all, what damages could be sought after for not providing the good or service? Just look elsewhere.

I, as an employer, cannot discriminate against religion, sex, race and so on, so I would expect that as a customer I would deserve the same standards and feel slighted if I were discriminated against. While I would hope that the “free market” would correct the prejudice, I’m afraid that may just be the wishful thinking of an idealist. There’s usually enough prejudice to keep it going.

In the end, we still have to review each scenario on a case by case basis. While I support the rights of the individual to conduct business with whomever they wish, I also support the rights of the business to conduct business with whomever they choose. If there is a difference of opinion and a breakdown in communication, let’s not drag this into a courtroom and just move on.

I’m glad you agree. I put a lot of thought into my position, but I still feel I haven’t fleshed it out enough.
With employers, I think that if someone is qualified for a job- they ought not be discriminated against. If their difference becomes problematic, I think employers ought to be able to react on a case by case basis. I would hire a devout Christian, for example, but if they made the work environment uncomfortable for other employees because of faith positions- I would want to be able to act appropriately.

The issue I have with holding a wedding at my business is that I think events are different than the people who attend them. There is some sense in which an event is seen as a tacit admission of approval by the business. I would not, if I owned a convention center, wish to be impelled to hold a Focus on the Family convention if I felt that their views diametrically opposed my own. But I also wouldn’t feel that I have a right to prevent their membership from eating in my restaurant or staying in my rooms. If their behavior became an issue- I would deal with it- but at a convention I feel that I should expect inappropriate behavior while at dinner I should not.

The trick with employers though is that they will rid themselves of the unwanted employee by firing them on some unrelated accusation to avoid legal repercussion. Something “performance” based, for example.

Most large companies decide what to tolerate strictly on the financial repercussions of deciding what to allow or not allow. For example, a company who doesn’t necessarily agree with the overall messages of Fox News may still justify reaching the large audience by advertising with them. Some smaller companies may draw the line when it comes to the issues concerning their personal beliefs and the perceived approval of a particular practice. Again, each case is reviewed separately to determine potential profit and loss.

I agree, though, when there are issues that carry events beyond the expected behavior. One expects just eating in a restaurant, for example, not a call to prayer as a spectacle. If you schedule someone with an event at your own convention center, you have a right to know what to expect at that event.

“…the tacit admission of approval by the business.”

X marks the spot…herein resides all of our trouble.

Everyone is “afraid” (me included). Everyone is afraid of outward appearances…what others will think. I am just as guilty, so I am not pointing fingers, here. But this is where we all need to be taking a stand. Dr. King taught us that the passive majority, although not generally perpetrators of outright injustice, where actually contributing more toward the injustice with their passivity, than they were toward helping to overcome that injustice. Christ’s saying, “…who is not working with me is working against me…who is not with me opposes me…” sums up what Dr. King was communicating.

But, I certainly do understand the sense of “being torn” on this one. Honestly, I do not directly address this over on my own blog…but only address what it is behind it…I only address it, indirectly. I often wonder if this is just me “being among the passive majority” who, due to vast numbers, are a powerful component in allowing such injustices to continue?

Here is an example of businesses being afraid of their condoning a worldview that they do not agree with. I wrote an extremely controversial thesis paper. I submitted that paper to a very elite scholarly journal. One day, prior to receiving an email from this journal that they had decided not to publish me, “someone” had Googled my email address, which had led them to my blog…

Of course, the elite journal I had submitted to is “afraid” to publish a controversial, table-turning thesis paper that is written by a Christian theist…from the outset. I knew it would be risky for them if they accepted and published me. Therefore, I wrote the paper to the best of my ability, such that it would steer clear of seeming to be “just another religious jaw.” It was by no means any of the sort.

However…I suspect that the “editorial committee” put someone on the computer to Google me…to “see what I was really about.” And, of course, on my blog I am openly and obviously a Christian theist.

I do not believe that this elite scholarly journal “rejected” my thesis paper because it was below standard or poorly written…or filled with a bunch of inflated claims that were obviously irrational for thinking individuals to “follow.” I believe that they “rejected” my paper because they were afraid. And I do not blame them. My paper could have pissed off some seriously powerful individuals! And guess what business would be accused of “admitting approval,” or “lending credence” to my ideas? That elite scholarly journal, that is who.

Thus, I have recently submitted the same thesis paper to a “Christian” philosophy journal…less prestigious, but, still…they, too, are afraid. I submitted two months ago. They are likely afraid for good reason. This paper would piss of just as many theists as it would a-theists! The paper seeks to share some simple observations. It seeks to address Charles Darwin’s very own anticipated objection to his own theory…but it then turns round and gives credence to Darwin’s theory, stating that there is no reason why a rational God should not be capable of “inventing” both Evolutionary and Cosmological Evolution…in order to set the universe going.

Sorry so long, but the point is just this. If more of us do not begin to fearlessly challenge the status quo—as I truly believe, by the way, that George constantly does challenge it on his blog—then we will simply be supplying the “unjust powers that be,” with large numbers of passive people, who do nothing…due to their fear…fear of what others will think.

I am not pointing fingers at anyone, as I am in the same boat. My blog would be utterly different if I did not hold certain fears; fears like, “what will this or that publishing house think…will my “worldview” “cause” them to decline publishing me? Will my worldview have me “put out of the synagogue,” so to speak?”

I wish we could all band together in order to take a stand in the courageous manner you always do, George.


But let’s be real here. Like I mentioned in my post, Rosa Parks and the Woolworth’s lunch counter happened in a time where it was perfectly acceptable to call blacks “nigger” loud and in public, and a good number of people would have nodded in agreement. But those acts of discrimination were handled without the law being involved. There was enough public pressure (even then) that forced those those businesses to change their policy.

Now think about how much stigma is associated with being a racist (why do you think the left never leaves home without the race card??). Think about the shop owner or whatever discriminating now. We are in a time where everyone is looking to be offended. Everyone is on the look out for the next dirty look. How long before someone notices the “covert” racism or discrimination and calls the news, or some activist group?

I mean, Apple pulled two religious apps that voiced their opinion that homosexuality was sinful. And that is a people group that represents only 3% of the American population. There is so much pressure that laws are not really needed, and lawsuits are just retaliatory and no better.

People on both sides need to grow up. The Bigots need to realize there are people out there they don’t like but need to respect. And the activists need to realize there will always be people who don’t like them.

Anyone who is providing goods or services to the public may not cherry pick from said public.

Everyone gets to drink from fountains in the public square.

The only way for religious organizations to be able to legally discriminate is if they are membership organizations and only provide services to members and they can define membership how they want.

Sort of like a Vancouver Golf club had a private lounge that was men only and the women of the club – who were paying something like $10,000 annual fees to be members – tried to sue for gender discrimination to have the lounge open to women.

They lost, because they accepted the terms when they joined and being a member wasn’t a requirement – there are other gold clubs.

But even this is problematic, since more often than not, it’s business going on in the lounges, deal brokering, networking – what woman can compete in the corporations when they don’t have the same access to senior management and opportunities for networking?

It’s the old boys club self perpetuation.

so too is refusing services that are otherwise available to anyone who can afford them.

I want to add that private sector businesses, operate in the public square.

They are not private in the way that your home is private.

It is an affront to personal dignity to be denied services or goods that are customarily available to the paying public just because you have some characteristic that the business owner disproves of.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a straight couple being kicked out of a gay club or a church group refusing to rent a hall for a gay wedding – if the public can walk in off the street and order a drink or book the venue, then the characteristics of the consumer cannot be used as justification to withhold services or goods.

People should not have to resort to human rights complaints, lawsuits, protests and boycotts – it’s exhausting and a waste of time – and groups and businesses should know better than to give cause to start any of that.

and, since religion is given so much tax preferential treatment

perhaps it’s critically more important that they above all, not be permitted to discriminate

unless they want to give up the tax status and be membership driven and not provide services to the public

then they can freely promote whatever view they like that will attract paying membership to support them and discriminate against non-members

I’m glad, Nina, that you defend that position so eloquently. I find your arguments persuasive.
I still remain a little apprehensive with the idea that a business is duty bound to provide a venue for controversial ideas- even if I personally think a gay wedding is far from a controversial idea.
If I owned a conference center, I would want the right to control the types of events that are held at my establishment. As I said in my earlier example, I wouldn’t want to host a Focus on the Family convention knowing full well the kind of intolerance that seeps from that organization. I wouldn’t want to in any way have my business associated with that kind of idea. I even wonder if being impelled to hold that kind of event might alienate potential customers who would want to rent my facilities. (Though if I were forced to hold such an event I would do my best to book several gay weddings the same weekend if I could find couples willing to play along- I would gladly do this at-cost for the lulz)
I still see good reason to disallow events on principle- though I would not extend that to people not expressly using the facilities for the offensive purpose.
I’m interested to see John’s counter argument to your points- since I found them persuasive.

I wouldn’t view it as duty bound to provide, but rather, duty bound to not deny.

As appalling as I think Focus on the Family is, if I operated a convention centre, I’d be willing to rent to them. They are as entitled as anyone else to get together.

It might even be an opportunity for dialog.

I think that it is an utter shame that any genuine follower of Jesus Christ treat his/her fellows, thus. This is anti-Society, in my opinion. For one thing, few Christians have critically analyzed the so called “scriptural authority” behind “judging sexuality,” period! If they wish to site first Corinthians, I will ask them if they can tell me the context in which Paul of Tarsus wrote what he did! For crying out loud…I have met few Christians…if any…who can tell me about this!

Paul was attempting to rebuke the Corinthians for prosecuting one another–turning to worldly courts in order to do all of their “judging” and “condemning” of others!

Raise your hand if you think the owners of this bed and breakfast may just be “too fit” for their own society–so fit, that they think themselves righteous enough to execute the ultimate of judgments upon two rational, decent human beings: the judgment of “casting them from society.” What they have decided to do…indeed, what they have admitted to doing…is “excluding” two decent human beings from the very “heart of things” within our society!

“Oh, my…they cannot participate in the heart of things, for they are a same sex couple….my, my, what would people think?”

“Woe to you Pharasees,” Jesus said. “Woe to you who sit in the lofty seats judging!”

Jesus Christ came to show us how to “complete the societal circuit!” He did not come in order to burden us further with shalt’s and shalt nots!

Here is what God the father said: “This is my son. Listen to him.”

Here is what Jesus, the Son of God said: “Why are you afraid? Stop doubting and believe,” and “…judge not lest ye be judged,” and “You must be reconciled with those against whom you hold a grudge, so that your Father in Heaven will forgive your crimes and offenses.”

There are four things that destroy the Christian witness: choosing fear instead of faith…holding onto resentments and judgments against others…moral dominance and superiority…and emotional sophistication.

I am appalled that more leading and well known Christian teachers/pastors are not stepping up to clear up our conglomerate misunderstanding of “sexual immorality” (hint-hint: sex that harms or exploits others), and “sexuality” in general!

Sorry, George. Did not mean to rant, but…why am I the only Christian I know who sees the corruption in this? I tell you the truth, it is more dangerous to “exclude” members of one’s own society from participating in the heart of things, than it is to be a low down no good smelly rotten “sinner!” At least the “sinner/criminal” more quickly comes to their senses that they are not competent enough to “complete the societal circuit” on their own…thus realizing that humanity’s most clever, shrewd prayer directed toward “the brains” behind DNA is plain and simply, “…have mercy on me, Oh Lord my God, for I am a sinner/criminal.”

The owner of that bed and breakfast has pretty much prayed the fools prayer, which is as follows: “I thank thee, God, that I am not like all those smelly rotten sinners…for I uphold what is right and pay my tithe…and I am a man married to a woman…and…I thank you God that I am not like ‘them!'”

Grrrr…can we not see how spiritually sick we are when we conduct ourselves as though we are above others? when we exclude others from the very heart of things? Rest assured…if God exists, He is a social God…a very social God.

Here is a clever God’s “plan” for justice and/or vengeance: “There is more joy in heaven over the repentance of one criminal/sinner, than there is over one-hundred “righteous” individuals who have never gone astray. I have exonerated all of your enemies…blotted out each of their crimes. Therefore, you are released from all of your grudges and from all of the judgments you had against them! If you forgive them…If and Only If…then, I will withhold my hand from executing vengeance upon you for your many crimes and offenses! Stop doubting and believe! You are now dismissed.”

John said…

I think businesses (not governments) should be allowed to discriminate against anyone for any reason.

In our country, we have decided that this ought not be the case and we have made it illegal to discriminate against anyone for any reason. A business can’t refuse to rent a room to a black couple for their being black, nor can they refuse to rent to a “mixed race” couple. I believe this to be a righteous law/ruling.

It’s a different story for religious enterprises, because we allow for some discrimination amongst our religious groups so as to allow for religious diversity. But normal businesses can’t discriminate for whatever reasons they want, and if they do, they can be held accountable.

I think this is reasonable and righteous.

nothing righteous is reasonable

righteous is putting ideas above people

that is immoral and an affront to personal dignity

[…] Misplaced Grace started an interesting conversation about whether religious business owners could cherry pick from the public who they wished to provide goods or services to, which is discriminating against members of the public they dislike. […]

Businesses have the right to discriminate. Government has no authority to make people love each other. The federal government has no authority under our Constitution to force a business to offer their services for support of events that promote homosexuality. (That is not to say all discrimination is morally acceptable.)

It is funny how those who cry the loudest “Separation of Church and State” and demand no religious principles entwined with government are the first to approve of the State interference with people’s religious principles. Essentially what these homosexuals want is to co-opt free speech. They want Christians to make them feel married and make them feel their choice in sexual behavior is acceptable.

A government that forces a business to open its services in contravention to the religious principles of its owners is a despotic regime.

We, in the US, have indeed decided that the state has the authority to outlaw discrimination. Why? Because people have their right to religion, but people also have the right not to have their life, liberty and property taken from them. One person’s right to swing their fist ends at another’s nose. One person’s right to run to run their business as they deem best (including discriminating or otherwise oppressing an entire group of people) ends at another group’s right to not be harmed or oppressed.

It’s been decided in our nation, thank God, and decided rightly, I believe.

separation of church and state does need to be enforced by government the same as any other law government passes

no one is preventing anyone from believing what they want – however, the right to beleive in any religion does not include any protection for the expression or practice

particularly when said practice results in harm to other people

which is why parents who’s children die from faith healing are charged criminally for failing to seek actual medical attention

and discrimination is a social harm on the dignity of other people

so a business owner’s religion does not get to be imposed on their customers

Good post and interresting dilemma.

If I had a restaurant or a conference centre and a bunch of neo-natzies wanted to rent my premises, would I not be compelled to reject them? To tell them, that as I despise what they represent. To deny them for that reason is a nother thing from denying them because I am affraid their public event at my premises might harm my business image. I would say that the latter would be an adequate reason for me to ban them, the former would not. But proving that would be much more complicated, than one would expect.

Market economy does not repair social injusticies. The Roman Empire was a market economy based on slave trade and it held together almost for a thousand years as it was in the interrest of the markets to buy and sell enslaved workforce.

The legal action this couple in the example has taken against the B&B enterpreneur is propably just what they feel they need to do to have an audience to the incident. So people who think they were discriminated would boycott that business.

My friend who is a hotel manager, said that the american guests are allways the most difficult, as they are continuously complaining. Supposedly they await to be compensated by services or by money, for the hotel to avoid legal action. But our legal system here in Finland rarely offers any monetary compensations as a resolve to such cases.

Religious freedom means a person has the right to do homage to their gods, but it does not say a person may discriminate those of different faith in their business.

I agree with Dan Trabue, that the legal system of a nation must have right to interfere in discriminatory practices of a business. If there is no laws concerning how one can make money, money will be made with the most immoral and harmfull ways imaginable.

It is just a question of where do we draw the line. Cultural backround traditionally has defined that, but as the world is globalizing, it grows more difficult to define it. General ethics of lesser harm vs. greater harm could be the answer. Who suffers more, the B&B owner or the couple who wanted their marriage to be held there? The owners right to his premices, or the public notion of discrimination being generally wrong?

I think that after the reply the couple had from the B&B, they propably would not want to have their marriage held there anymore, but it is natural that they want this to become a public issue, as they feel discriminated. Is courtroom the right place to settle their discontent? Yes, if that is the only media they can have the attention to the issue.

Katie, here in Finland the bishops of the Lutheran state church have taken some stand in presenting Jesus as a messanger of tolerance to all people. Most people are really not interrested. But the most openly religious have rushed to condemn the liberal attitudes of the bishops and that in turn has lead people to separate from the church en masse, because they feel the small, but loud minority of fundies to be more representative of church and christianity in general than the liberal and tolerant bishops… Sad, really.

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