The Freedom to Refuse


A lot is being made about the proposed Arizona law which ostensibly provides a religious freedom possibility for the declining of service to individuals. That sentence, upon further review, isn’t worded terribly well, but there’s a reason for that; it’s hard for me to know exactly what this law is intended to accomplish, in large part because the mainstream media is lying about it. No, they’re not shading the story; they are flat-out telling lies. And a lot of people–as is too typical–are buying it hook, line, and sinker.

But it’s not this specific proposed law, nor the one rejected in Kansas a week or two ago, upon which I want to comment. Rather, it is freedom, in general, that interests me and is the topic of this post. Now, the specific freedom which is being discussed seems to be the First Amendment freedom of religion, and specifically the so-called “free exercise” clause. In the event we have any low-information readers, let me remind you of the wording: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This section of the First Amendment has served us well, and I’m, of course, all for it (how you could not be all for the First Amendment and claim to be an American is beyond me–but this hilarious video suggests otherwise).

I’m not sure, though, that the things that are being talked about are so much “freedom of religion” issues as they are freedom of association issues. Does an American businessperson have the freedom to refuse service to another person, or not? “No shoes, no shirt, no service” would seem to suggest this, but there are those who would compel, for instance, a Christian baker to bake a wedding cake for a “gay wedding”, or a photographer to photograph a “lesbian wedding” ceremony despite that person’s convictions and beliefs to the contrary. I, of course, believe this to be wrong, but in extending this beyond simply a “freedom of religion” issue to one of freedom of association, as I believe it to be, we open the door to some tough questions about what we want America to be–or not to be. And so I invite you to take my little quiz:

1. We start with the obvious, the issue(s) that raised the specter of this proposed legislation: should a Christian baker, who believes that marriage can never be redefined as being between two people of the same sex, be compelled to bake and sell a wedding cake to a gay couple intent on holding a “wedding ceremony”? Be careful how you answer…

2. Let’s ask another bakery question: should a Jewish baker be compelled to bake a “Happy Birthday, Hitler” cake for a group of Nazi skinheads celebrating Der Fuhrer’s birthday?

3. A woman’s husband runs off with another woman, leaving her with three small kids at home. Because she needs to support those kids, she files for child support and opens a florist shop. Out of spite at her filing for child support, he and his new fiance demand that she provide the floral arrangements for the wedding. Should she be compelled to by law?

4. A homosexual man runs a print shop. Fred Phelps and his loonies from Westboro Baptist walk in and demand that he print signs saying, “God Hates Fags”, “Death to Gays”, and so on. Should the gay man be compelled to make those signs?

5. Catholic printer is approached by NARAL with an order to print signs in support of their “pro-choice” rally. Should he have to print the signs? For that matter, pro-choice printer is approached by National Right-to-Life; should he be compelled to do the print job?

6. An atheist’s services are sought by a Christian group wanting literature to be printed on the follies of atheism. Should he have to take the job, by law?

I have no doubt that my readers could think of other examples, but it seems clear to me that the answer to every single one of these questions is “NO”, and the one key reason is freedom. Of course, all of those refusing service to others on the bases I described must be willing to live with the economic choices of their consequences–this is only right. But a rudimentary understanding of the concept of freedom should demand that we not force people to act in ways contrary to their consciences or their belief systems.

Now, if there were a law written that said “no one shall bake a cake celebrating (whatever)”, or “no one shall print a sign in support of the pro-choice cause”, that’d be one thing, but that’s not what’s happening in these real-world cases, and the threat to freedom on the part of the “tolerant” left is appalling. I believe in freedom and believe it should be guarded; it’s a shame that way too many Americans don’t.


  1. Matt Mitchell on February 27, 2014 at 11:20 am

    At the risk of seeming ignorant or anti-American to you, I’d like to wade in here and interact some on this. I am genuinely confused by the issues and seeking light.

    Byron, do you believe that any anti-discrimination laws for commerce are legitimate? Or does the freedom of association trump them all?

    It seems to me that liberty here may be the ability to choose to go into business for yourself or not to go into business for yourself and to choose what business you want to try your hand at. But if you are in business then it could be legitimate for the state to require you to offer your business to any and all.

    To answer your quiz, I’m sure that I wouldn’t personally want for any of those people to have to take those clients, but I could see how it would just be the cost of being in business in the public sphere.

    Are any and all services like this for you? I’ve seen some other suggested scenarios online:

    – A Muslim cab driver that won’t pick up an unescorted woman.

    – A hotel owner that won’t provide a room for an interracial couple on religious grounds.

    – A “No Gays Allowed” sign on the door of a restaurant.

    – A gas station that requires customers to sign a form saying they’ve never had an abortion and refusing service to those who admit to it.

    Are these cut, dried, and in the same category for you? These folks should not be compelled to do that business but must be willing to live with the economic consequences? I’m guessing that you will say, “Yes,” but I’m wondering if there are any times when you think that religious convictions/conscience is not acceptable for discriminating on providing or refusing a good or service.

    I’m struggling with this one. I want to preserve religious liberty and freedom of conscience (I certainly don’t long to be compelled to participate in anything I don’t believe in.). I don’t believe that gay is the new black and that there is a difference. And yet, I want also to see civility and respect (not hate) in the public sphere. Jim Crow was truly ugly. “No shirt, no shoes, no service’ seems legitimate for health concerns, but “No Jews, no Christians, no Muslims” seems wrong and anti-American to me, as well.

    What am I missing?

    • Byron on February 27, 2014 at 5:49 pm

      Not sure you’re missing anything, Matt. An argument can be made for a fully libertarian understanding of such matters–but I’m not sure I buy it. That argument would be that a business owner could refuse service for any reason whatever, and that the only counterbalance to that is the prospect of lost revenue. I think that’s a case of something that might work in theory but doesn’t lead to the kind of society most of us want to live in, in actual practice. Civil rights laws would not be on the books under such a scenario, and it’s hard to argue against such laws or that they haven’t had a profoundly positive impact on our society.

      I don’t, on the other hand, think that the state should have the ability to make a person’s right to own a business contingent upon that person doing every thing that the state might wish it would (probably poorly-worded). Safety laws? Check. Health codes? Sure. But somehow there ought to be a carve-out, an allowance, made for sincerely-held religious beliefs when it comes to providing certain services. I’m not totally sure how…it does seem to me that compelling a business owner to participate “directly” in something that violates his conscience goes too far (baking a wedding cake), whereas simply compelling someone to bake a cake for someone who happens to be homosexual does not.

  2. Matt Mitchell on March 4, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Thanks, Byron, for the clarification. From your post, it seemed like you took the absolute libertarian view and that anyone who thought differently was ignorant about freedom or anti-American. But your follow-up shows that you don’t think that anti-discrimination laws are illegitimate–you are just calling for a “carve-out” for religious convictions about directly participating in something that violates the conscience. That makes a lot of sense to me–I, too, don’t know how it might work either and how to keep it from being abused, but as I don’t think that our freedoms are absolute, neither should the right to demand service from a conscientious service provider be absolute, either.

    Thanks for the interaction, my friend.

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