According to a unanimous decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court, the suppression of one’s moral convictions and the denial of one’s property rights has become the “price of citizenship.” The court’s opinion stemmed from a lawsuit against a photography studio whose owners declined to offer their services to a homosexual couple. Citing their religious convictions as a basis for their choice, they were soon faced with a legal battle over their discriminatory decision.
This is part of a larger trend nationwide. A Vermont country inn was fined $30,000 because one of its employees turned away a gay couple seeking to hold their wedding reception at the facility based on the owner’s religious convictions. In Colorado, a judge upheld a gay couple’s lawsuit against a bakery for not offering them a wedding cake. A florist in Washington was likewise sued for her refusal to offer her services in support of a same-sex ceremony. We can expect more legal battles along these lines in the future, including here in Utah.
LGBT individuals, many of whom I consider friends, generally favor such strong-arm tactics by using the government to compel business owners and landlords to cater to people with alternative lifestyles. Fifteen municipalities in Utah have passed ordinances that prohibit property owners from discriminating against people based on their “gender identity and sexual orientation.” In this year’s legislative session, proponents will push for a statewide law that imposes a similar ban on property owners throughout the state.
Opponents of these laws correctly point out that they put some religious people in a moral bind, forcing them to either adhere to their beliefs and be punished by the state, or betray those deeply held beliefs for a proverbial mess of pottage. Advocates of anti-discrimination law argue the other side, such as the ACLU, which claims that religious freedom “does not give us the right to use our religion to discriminate against others who do not share [it].”
The focus on religion overlooks the more fundamental point: it is our right to our own property that gives us the ability to discriminate in how that property is used. We all discriminate on a daily basis when deciding which businesses to patronize, what to eat and how we work. Business owners discriminate in deciding where to locate, what products to offer and what companies they work with.
To fully understand this proposal, consider its fullest application: punishing people for not shopping at a business owned by a gay person, or not renting a home from a gay person, or choosing not to work for a gay employer. If the law entitles LGBT persons to an employer and landlord, should it not also entitle them to employees, patrons and tenants?
If we believe that an individual owns his business or his residential property, then by what right can we compel him to use it in association with people he prefers not to, whatever the reason? While we may morally object to his decision, and find it disappointing that he refuses to offer his resources to a person because he’s black, short, smelly, gay, lazy or Mormon, these concerns do not provide a basis for compulsion through the law.
Individuals either have property rights or they do not. It is not logical to claim that individuals have such rights so long as they use their property (and their businesses) in ways that are socially acceptable and approved by others. No person, whatever his innate or chosen characteristics, is entitled to the services and property of another. It’s that simple.
While we may object to unfair or harsh discrimination, let’s leave the law alone to protect, and not punish, essential property rights.
Connor Boyack is president of Libertas Institute.