Freedom of Association

Freedom of Association July 10, 2019

Freedom of association:  The right to form societies, clubs, and other groups of people, and to meet with people individually, without interference by the government.

I recently had a discussion about discrimination in a comment thread here with an individual whom I will identify as “J.” The subject of free association came up. Here’s how it went:

J: While I don’t think employers should concern themselves with their employee’s beliefs I also support their legal right to employ who they want to employ.

ME: So they should be free to choose not to hire black people? Or Jews? Or Muslims? To put up a sign that says:


J: I believe in freedom of association. I realize people may use that freedom in ways I disagree with just as I realize freedom of speech will be used in ways I disagree with and freedom of religion will be used in ways I disagree with. I resist the temptation to mouth the words, “I support freedom of X,” while supporting policies that curtail said freedom. I know, despite human civilization existing for thousands of years without anti-discrimination laws, that the average modern man cannot fathom a world without them.

ME: It is not against the law to be a private bigot. But when you open a business, there are laws that prohibit discrimination. You apparently do not agree with them. So let’s extend this a little further. Should a shopkeeper be allowed to post a sign in his front window.


Or even if he doesn’t post a sign, should he be able to look at a person walking in the door, and say, “Please leave. I do not want your business.” I am trying to understand how you think our society should work.

J: I’m quite aware there are laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating. And I do disagree with them because they curtail freedom of association. I believe a business should be able to choose who it does business with. If this means only serving white Christian customers, so be it.

ME: Okay, I understand your position. Obviously, I do not agree with it, but…as you say, so be it.


J’s interpretation of “freedom of association” is far broader than the one I found in the dictionary that is quoted at the top of the article. Furthermore, freedom of association is not specifically discussed in the Constitution, although it is implied for religious organizations. Nowhere is the notion that it includes freedom of a business to discriminate in hiring or in choice of customers. J acknowledges that laws that prohibit such discrimination have been enacted, and he disagrees with them. The implication is that we got along fine without those laws for centuries. I don’t think most non-white people would say it was fine.

What if those anti-discrimination laws were repealed, and all businesses in the United States were free to discriminate in hiring and to provide their goods and services only to customers that they approve of? Their criteria for approval or disapproval would be entirely up to them. How would that work out?

Let’s think about some possible outcomes if all anti-discrimination laws were repealed:

A small rural town, somewhere in the south, with a white majority, decides to pass an ordinance mandating that all white-owned businesses in town will sell their products and services to white customers only. Since most of the businesses are white-owned, this means that all black residents of the town must go to neighboring towns for groceries, medical care, gas for their car, etc. The rationale is that this will force all the black residents to move out, thus “purifying” the community. It’s white supremacy on a small scale, and it would be completely legal if anti-discrimination laws were repealed. If most of the cities and towns in the state did this, they could force most nonwhite residents to move out of the state. If most states did this, all non-white people would be forced to move to the remaining states that still treated all people equally. If the ordinance were expanded to include non-Christians, all people of other religions or no religion would be faced with the same problem. Their property would obviously be unsaleable, or sold at confiscatory prices. It brings back memories of how Jews were treated under Hitler.

Okay, let’s leave that for a moment, and think about another outcome:

The Catholic Church, and its supporting organizations, are using their vast wealth to take over many hospitals and clinics. This is real and is happening now. Let’s project this out a few years, until they own virtually all the hospitals in a state. Then, without any legislative action, using the RFRA as a legal shield, they could declare that none of their facilities will provide any women’s reproductive healthcare…no abortions, tubal ligations, IUD placements or even contraceptive prescriptions. Vasectomies for men would also be ruled out. Effectively, the Church would control the reproductive lives of most of the people in the state, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of beliefs.

NOTE: This is an example of what can happen when non-discrimination laws are repealed. The RFRA is a partial repeal of the CRA. There are 46 regions in the country that have only Catholic-owned hospitals. People in those regions are already experiencing the results noted above.

I could probably come up with more possible outcomes if anti-discrimination laws were repealed. Treating discrimination as “freedom of association” and allowing people to use racial and religious differences to partition society into warring camps is the opposite of what a government should do. Our government was established by people who had a vision of a secular nation, where everyone could practice whatever faith, or no faith, that they wished. But those Founders lived in a different time, when slavery was accepted. People of all non-white races were considered inferior, especially African-Americans, brought here as slaves. Going back to those times, and allowing people in power to oppress those who can’t defend themselves would solidify economic classes along racial lines. In the long run, that would be profoundly destructive to the future of our nation. It would destroy the myth of the American Dream by limiting its promise to only those of the preferred race.

Much has changed since the days of the Founders, and our society, and our government have adapted accordingly. When the Civil Rights Act was finally passed in 1964, it was a resounding affirmation that we were beyond those bad old times.

Some would like to go back to those times.

We need to make sure that they do not prevail.

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