Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act has received an unprecedented amount of criticism recently—from political philosophy heavyweights such as Miley Cyrus and MC Hammer to the omniscient and omnipresent Facebook troll. I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a while but it has been extremely difficult to wrap my head around people who think it’s okay for the government to fine someone $150,000 for not baking a cake. This is not a straw man fallacy—this actually happened in response to a baker refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian couple in Oregon.
Luckily, an interesting discussion regarding the topic showed up on my feed and one of the participants made a point that seems to be the crux of the issue and has helped me gain perspective on the mindset here.
The main criticism of the Indiana RFRA law as I see it comes down to one idea: that it is a violation of rights to deny service to someone based on sexual orientation. You see, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, and national origin and since then, age, pregnancy, disability, veteran status, and genetic information have been added as so-called protected classes under the law, at least on a federal level. Sexual orientation is a protected class in some states, but not Indiana which caused some people to believe their RFRA (it exists in some form or another in 19 states) could be used as protection for business owners to discriminate and refuse business to gays.
There are so many things wrong with this proposition that it’s no wonder there’s been such an uproar about the law—for and against. Here are my main objections:
1. Discrimination Is Not Evil
It used to be a compliment to say someone had discriminating taste. Now, when someone drops the word ‘discrimination’, it’s usually like they outed a Nazi war criminal. But discrimination isn’t all bad; in fact, it’s actually necessary for a free society. The proof of this is seen in the contradictory actions of today’s discrimination police who seem to discriminate… indiscriminately. No one is crying bloody murder at the countless “No shoes, no shirt, no service” signs posted on many convenience stores. Discrimination is perfectly fine there. And the irony of people condemning discrimination by discriminating themselves in the #boycottIndiana campaign was not lost on me. Even some people attacking Indiana RFRA agreed that Mozilla was justified in discriminating against and firing its CEO Brendan Eich for a political campaign contribution he made. And when I asked the participants whether a gay bakery should be able to deny a customer who wanted a cake saying gay marriage is wrong, they naturally thought that that discrimination was fine.
Discrimination is nothing more than making a distinction between options and if we aren’t free to discriminate, we aren’t free to think for ourselves. No one is willing to admit he’s against free thinking.
The problem arises when you have illogical discrimination or discrimination based on prejudices. Reasonable people will agree that refusing business from a black man or refusing to hire someone because he’s gay is idiotic and a bad economic decision—it’s simply illogical. Not only will you lose out on a large talent pool and consumer market but other customers will reject you because of your bigotry: we live in a society in which that type of prejudice isn’t accepted and people will take their business elsewhere. That’s the beauty of the free market!
2. Government Does Not Grant Rights
Of course, many will whine, “Why let the market solution work its voluntary magic when we can force the issue with the steel boot of the government?”
The answer is that once the government gets involved and forces the issue, there are always unintended consequences. When the CRA passed in 1964, it protected against discrimination based on only a few classes. But why was it okay to discriminate based on some qualities and not others? This is about as arbitrary and illogical as the prejudice it aims to eliminate. It set us up for reverse discrimination and for the current battle we have today in which some people feel like they’re not being protected under the law. When government gets involved, it has to pick winners and losers and right now it appears the government is only picking losers.
Furthermore, the protected classes implied that the government was granting rights to individuals based on those classes. When advocating for the legislation, President Kennedy expressly said we need a law, “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.” News flash: government doesn’t give rights, it gives privileges. When enough people feel like those privileges are being withheld, we have the type of political upheaval we’re seeing today.
Instead of adding to the arbitrary and ridiculous legislation, we should repeal it in its entirety because:
3. True Natural Rights Do Not Contradict Other Natural Rights
In a sound moral and legal framework, rights cannot contradict other rights. In other words, you can’t have a right to personal liberty and have a right to own slaves since slavery contradicts personal liberty. If we can all agree that we have a right to think freely, we must agree that no one (not even a government bureaucrat with a beard) has the right to fine someone or throw them in prison for thinking the wrong thing. Similarly, you cannot have a right to free association and a right to all goods and services offered to the public. Those rights contradict.
The right to liberty, free thought, and free association are all concurrent in that they do not contradict themselves or other rights. The supposed right to all public goods and services contradicts many natural rights and therefore is not a right at all—it’s a privilege and as we saw above, an extremely problematic one at that.
As David Montgomery writes, “Individuals must be free to choose the terms upon which they exchange with each other, or they are not free.”
The discrimination police know this; they push on anyway. John Zimerak keenly observed how stunning it was the “the demands of gay activists went from libertarian (‘Don’t arrest us for sodomy’) to totalitarian (‘Take part in our weddings or we’ll destroy your livelihoods.’)” Stunning indeed.
This fight isn’t about religion; it isn’t about homosexuality; and it certainly isn’t about cake. It’s about a certain group of people trying to tell another group of people what they can and cannot do. It’s about coercion and our duty as reasonable free thinkers to reject—to discriminate—against it.