Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives of the State of Michigan approved a bill allowing business owners the right to refuse service if doing so would conflict with “sincerely held religious beliefs”. If passed in the state Senate, this would give a wide ranging platform to business owners to refuse service they view as incompatible with their faith and morals while being protected against legal backlash. Examples of this practice are plentiful and widespread in the US, from bakeries refusing to bake a cake for a same sex couple’s wedding to the more extreme cases in which women are refused access to birth control or LGBT couples are refused access to adoption services.
The debate around the bill centres on the question of whether private businesses have the right to act as any other private individual would. Lawmakers argue that it merely enshrines already existing powers to refuse service to whoever a business sees fit and is in effect almost like an extension of the right to decide who to let into our homes. However, this fails to take into consideration the societal harm these discriminatory policies inflict, and also ignores the fact that the businesses operate within the public sphere. By legalising the right to discriminate you are reinforcing societal structures which oppress minority groups.
The failure to see parallels between this bill and Jim Crow’s America is both outstanding and depressing. The very same reasoning was used in the 1960s by the South Carolina barbecue chain Piggie Park, whose owner claimed that religious beliefs compelled him to oppose any racial integration. This brand of flagrant racism is thankfully completely outlawed now. Yet discrimination based on sex and sexuality is still commonplace. This reflects the changing landscape of civil rights in the US, and while it might appear that little progress has been made, what is encouraging is that these practices do not reflect a wider trend. Equal rights movements in the US are a significant force with marriage equality growing by the day, for instance.
There are 21 states in the US which, in addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have further legislation to prevent discrimination. California goes as far as to outlaw discrimination based on “unconventional dress”, for example. Yet Michigan is not one of them, which is why, in an effort to right what they see as an injustice, the Satanic Temple, a group with a penchant for exposing hypocrites, have proposed a rewording of the bill which would require businesses to display their discriminatory opinions for all to see. That way, those who disagree can simply choose not to shop or eat there. While there is something deliciously ironic about using the free market to regulate American conservatism, it would still be damaging to see a sign hung in the window of a restaurant that said “no gays”. This would be a throwback to a darker era and even as paradoxically well-intentioned as the idea is, expressions of discrimination such as this still have no place in a modern, tolerant society.
The long slow march towards equal rights for all is, at the core, a movement to change deeply-rooted opinions. In this sense, we can in no way be seen to validate or support these beliefs at all. The only way to tackle a proposal such as the one seen in Michigan is with outright condemnation, a firm refusal to allow such discrimination to exist in today’s societies.