Right to Refuse Service

Right to Refuse Service March 24, 2015

2015-03-23 21.24.45

Indiana passed a so-called religious freedom bill, which actually protects the right of businesses to refuse service. On the one hand, we ought to be very concerned indeed when we consider that this same legislation could justify refusing to serve people based on race, as long as the racism is justified by a religious belief. It might ultimately be decided that such a case is one of the many in which the government’s other “compelling interests” trump the business proprietor’s right to not have undue burden placed on their religious freedom. But should it have to go to court in order for that to be decided? Shouldn’t we be seeking to protect equality and prevent discrimination on the front end of the process, to the extent that we can?

The inscrutible legalese of Bill 101 is itself a problematic aspect of the legislation.

On the other hand, ultimately businesses may deserve to have the right to refuse service – whether because a client is being a pain in the neck, or because they don’t want to bake a cake for a KKK rally.

And so, for all the harm that legislation of this sort may do to foster discrimination, it may be that the best responses are (1) to satirize the proponents of the bill, as the image at the top of this post does; and (2) for businesses which are happy to serve anyone and everyone to make signs indicating that.

Perhaps, as in the battle for civil rights for people of all races, the power of consumer spending may be able to accomplish change more effectively than legal disputes.

What do you think? When I first posted something about this kind of response to the legislation on Facebook, it led to interesting discussion. I hope the same will be true here on the blog.

See too Jack Vance’s post on how he hopes atheists will treat Christians in the future, if the numerical proportions is ever the reverse of what it is now.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • R Vogel

    ‘And so, for all the harm that legislation of this sort may do to foster discrimination, it may be that the best responses are (1) to satirize the proponents of the bill, as the image at the top of this post does; and (2) for businesses which are happy to serve anyone and everyone to make signs indicating that.’

    This. Action trumps words every day of the week. But that requires political will of which Americans, progressives in particular, are generally bereft…..

  • Mike Wilson

    I’ve mentioned this before, US laws protecting religious liberty are strict. You have to demonstrate that your belief is part of a legitimate religion to get protection. Thus some native Americans can claim religious exemptions for peyote but I cannot for cocaine, because I don’t belong to any faith that uses cocain ritually. Sikh children can carry ceremonial daggers to school but redneck kids can’t. Amish don’t have to have SS numbers, but I do. And so on. The protections extended to religion are not just for popular ones or the ones we agree with, but all of them to the extent that we can and safely maintain society. We wont fall apart if muslim bakers don’t make a gay couple a wedding cake.

  • Gary

    Just boycott Indiana. Tourism, conventions, etc pull out of Indiana. Worked with MLK holiday in Arizona. Of course, this assumes someone would actually want to go to Indiana. This is problematic.

    • There are some things that have been a longstanding draw, such as GenCon. If that were to relocate, it would be a huge blow. If the new legislation costs sporting and other revenue, that would be an even bigger blow. Indianapolis had been making huge strides – and of course, Indianapolis is the place in the state which, along with Bloomington, probably most resents this legislation. And so even when it comes to boycotting, it is crucial to ask whether certain economic boycotts will actually hurt those responsible and thus convey the message in the way it needs to be to those who need to hear it.

      • Gary

        Perhaps a “full disclosure” requirement is needed. If someone walks into a store, how do the prospective customers know their business is not welcome? It opens up embarrassing situations. So require the store to post in a prominent location, it’s policy (blacklist) of people it does not serve. “No gay wedding business” since we are “x” religion. Then, myself, as a potential customer, can go elsewhere in protest. My assumption is that the business owner would rather leave the store policy ambiguous, until he can dump on the person. If he is required to post his policy, then he can’t play it both ways. Of course, I would bet that a Republican, conservative legislature, would never put requirements on businesses.

  • John Pieret

    In Mississippi, when it passed similar legislation, businesses (including those owned by Christians) started putting up stickers that said: “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.” The funny thing was that the religious right, such as Buddy Smith, executive vice president of Tupelo-based American Family Association, were incensed:


    The best thing for people of good will to do in the face of such laws is to point out that THEY aren’t bigots. It would also be good to push for amendments to the laws to require businesses that want to take advantage of such laws to prominently proclaim, in all its advertisements, just who they won’t serve. Then the “invisible hand” of the market can determine who is right!

  • Jason

    I think the difference between making a cake for a gay couple and the KKK is a false dichotomy. Which group does harm? Which group is dangerous?

    • In the United States, we protect the freedom of speech even of groups like the KKK which, were it not for the view that freedom of speech and of expression are sacrosanct, we might well think ought to be illegal. And so once we adopt that stance, what happens when a representative comes to a bakery, or a print shop, asking for something that you or I views as doing harm and simply unacceptable speech? Ought you or I to have the right to refuse to fulfill an order if we disagree with it?

      • Andrew Dowling

        A huge difference is homosexuality is a biologically rooted sexual orientation; racism is not.

        • $21640749

          Racism is absolutely innate. I’ve hardly known a single soul who didn’t suffer from it to some degree. It’s hard-wired into our psyche like all forms of identity bias, from tribal politics to sports fanaticism.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Um, not really. It’s hard wired to be suspicious of outsiders/the unknown, but that depends on the circumstances of your nurturing. A child of interracial parents for example, who goes to schools with 50% blacks and 50% whites, is not going to be racist against either group.

          • $21640749

            From my experiences, quite untrue. This would all depend upon how that person identifies. Racial prejudice is at root, largely and more properly labeled identity bias. Most biracial folks I know have their own biases. More often than not those racial attitudes are not as extreme as someone with more uniform geographic ancestry, because they recognize they are partially other and thus their own ego limits their willingness to speak cruelly about that other, or commit entirely to one side. But being half white genetically, like the Holders, Obamas, Farrakhans and Gateses of the world, hardly prevents one from having deep-seated racial prejudices and racial identities. In some instances the fear such an individual might have of not fitting it can drive them to be racial absolutists or magnify their own commitment to their kind, in order to compensate for their doubts and the doubts of others regarding the true nature of their genetic history.

    • John Pieret

      So, when Lester Maddox stood in the door of his lunch counter, otherwise open to the general public, with an ax handle, denying service to black people, he wasn’t doing harm to black people?

      The concept is easy to understand: if you open a business that serves the general public … that same general public that pays for, through taxes or other public expenditures, the essential services, such as roads, sewers, electrical service, fire and police protection, etc., etc,, needed to run your business, then the public can and should have a say in how you do it. Simply saying that, if we are going to support your business, you have to serve all customers on an equal basis is no imposition on your freedom of religion or any other freedom. It is the non-oppressive price of living in an organized civilization.

      If you can’t abide by that, go open your business in someplace without publically financed roads, sewers, electrical service, fire and police protection, etc., etc, and let us know how you do.

      ISIS controlled parts of Syria and Iraq might be a good place to start.

    • Hersheymom

      Shouldn’t a Jewish deli have the right to refuse service to a customer
      requesting a baked ham for their Easter buffet? The customer isn’t a
      member of a dangerous group. There is simply a conflict of conscience,
      and each ought to respect the other. The State should not compel a
      business owner to violate his conscience at the request of a customer.

      • I think you may be misinformed about the nature of kosher observance. A Jewish deli is not going to sell ham. They do not carry it but refuse to sell it to Christians, the way your example suggests.

        • Hersheymom

          That’s true, but you’re missing my point. I was trying to come up with an example of a legitimate refusal of service based on conscience. Try this: Can a Muslim baker refuse to decorate a cake with the words, “Jesus Is Lord”?

          • Not if they have chosen to work at a secular bakery which makes cakes decorated with words, and which can be expected to serve customers regardless of religion, ethnicity, etc. They could certainly ask someone else in the workplace to do it in their place if they are uncomfortable. But ultimately the law must choose between protecting the right of businesspeople to follow their own conscience vs. the right of customers to be protected from discrimination. If one cannot in good conscience sell to all people, then one should set up a business that has a clear religious identity and which thus has a different legal status, catering only to one group and its specific needs.

          • Hersheymom

            I think you have put your finger on the root of the problem. The State must now “choose between protecting the right of businesspeople to follow their
            own conscience vs. the right of customers to be protected from
            discrimination.” From a Bill of Rights that was intended to protect the basic human rights of all people, we now find ourselves entangled in a morass of laws that aim to protect this or that “protected group,” which can and does change with every wind of political and economic expediency. The rights of the currently favored group always trump the rights of the group out of favor. This is not what our founding fathers had in mind. This is, in fact, what they fled in Europe.

          • I think you have misunderstood the point. The protection of some always infringes on the right of others to do as they wish. This is nothing new. My right to life limits your right to take life. My right to liberty limits your right to kidnap. Making discrimination illegal infringes on the free expression of the bigot. If you think that those minorities which are “protected groups” are merely passing fads then you really ought to inform yourself better about such matters and the history thereof. Personally, as a Baptist, I am part of a group which fled Europe – one which was not typical of the Founding Fathers, most of whom did not need to flee in the way you seem to think. Because of this heritage, Baptists have historically stood on the side of protecting all minorities and not just themselves. It is sad that, in our time, some of my fellow Baptists have lost touch with the roots of their tradition.

          • Hersheymom

            But… I have no right to take a life. I have no right to kidnap. And, I am no bigot. In this country, I do have–or did have–a right to exercise my faith, and until recently the state had no right to compel me otherwise. That is changing. Discrimination is not being made illegal. On the contrary, it is gaining legislative sanction, in favor of some groups at the expense of others.
            (BTW, I’m not a Baptist, but I have my degree in theology from a Baptist university.)

          • If one defines it as discrimination to be prevented from engaging in discrimination against others, then one has so distorted the word as to make it meaningless. The approach in the U. S. has always been that people have as full rights as possible to believe, and as close as possible to that to speak. But when it comes to actions, our freedoms have always been constrained by the interests of the government and of society. That I cannot simply withhold my tax money from serving warfare could easily be considered discrimination, but so then could a great many things, many more than deserve to be.

          • Hersheymom

            To discriminate is to draw a distinction; it works both for and against. As for the “right to believe,” I don’t see that in the Constitution. What I see is a right to the “free exercise” of a religion, meaning the freedom to act in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.

            A person might try to withhold tax money in protest against welfare. And yes, it would be easy to infer from that, a prejudice against the poor. But such an inference would be unjust. Might it not as likely be an honest disagreement about how best to serve the poor?

          • I could see someone trying to bring about a better systemic solution to the problem of poverty than America’s welfare system. But for someone to simply withhold money without such a reform attempt would obviously indicate prejudice against the poor, since one cannot be for the resolution of a systemic problem and yet opposed in principle to a systemic solution.

          • Hersheymom

            That inference isn’t “obvious” to me, but it’s your hypothesis. Anyway, we’ve strayed a bit off-subject here…

          • What inference? Are you suggesting that poverty is not a systemic issue? Are you suggesting that merely ameliorating the condition of victims of injustice, instead of seeking to eliminate the injustice itself, is an adequate solution?

          • Hersheymom

            I’m not interacting with your hypothesis one way or another. It’s off-topic.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The problem with #2 is that in a number of communities, especially in fly-over country and the rural/small town southeast, there really wouldn’t be any stigma attached to businesses that refused service to gay people (of course, it would be doctored up in different, esoteric terms that would attempt to claim it’s not doing what it’s really doing).

    Also, it kind of says “sucks for you” for the minority of gays in those small communities.

  • Steve

    You can not refuse service based on race, gender, etc because they are protected groups under federal law. Homosexuality is not a protected group though. When considering refusal of service to non protected groups legal precedent says if the refusal is arbitrary it is illegal. So refusing service solely on the basis of sexual preference would be ruled a violation of civil rights in court.

  • Dave Burke

    Just do not buy from these people. Too much drama,

  • Michael

    The problem is too many people do not understand what free society means. No private business should,under force of government, be required to do business with any person or group of people. They own the business, it is up to them who they do business with. The other part of being in a free society is, those who are denied service are free to take their business elsewhere. I would love to see gay marriage legalized in every state, however, when the government tells private business owners that they *must* do business with people they do not want to do business with then government has overstepped its bounds. Of course they already have by making it illegal to refuse service based on race. This may shock the bleeding hearts but even that is an overreach of government power. If it does not effect the health and well being of the community then government should not be telling private individuals how to run their business. Thankfully, our society has progressed greatly and businesses who refuse service to people because of race or sexual orientation will not last very long. It is simply not the governments place to tell a private individual who they must do business with. I know the statist who want government to have tremendous power because, “we are the government” (by the way, can you be anymore naive), will have a problem with this but oh well. That is free and open society for you. Government is leashed by us and businesses are leashed by our decision to do business,or not, with them. Now I will await the racist and bigot mudslinging. Just as the idiotic ‘islamophobe’ mudslinging that comes from the left when I criticize the *IDEA* that is Islam.

    • I find that people who use the term “statist” tend not to be interacting with the real views that other people in their society hold. I would love to know why that is. But such questions aside, many of us do not think “free society” is an apt term for one in which someone can be turned away from places of business because of the color of their skin or any other comparable reason. When corporations were more free than they are now, workers were locked in unsafe buildings, with tragic consequences of which I am sure you are aware. Tyrrany is simply a society in which one person has unlimited freedom, which in turn takes away the freedom of others. The United States seeks to maximize the freedom of all, which means that no one person or group has all the freedoms they in theory could have. Is that really so hard to understand?