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Opinion & Letters to the Editor

March 8, 2014

Giving businesses choice is not legalizing discrimination

Editor's note: CNHI newspapers that are not weekly subscribers to Taylor Armerding's column may publish this one if they notify him at t.armerding@verizon.net.

The bar owner was blunt. A couple of weeks ago, he announced that people of a certain persuasion would not be allowed into his establishment.

To demonstrate his seriousness, he had head shots printed of those who are not welcome to make sure that his security team would deny them entry.

“I want to send a message to all those people out there … we don’t want your kind here,” he said. “I’ve learned that I can’t stop crazy, ignorant or stupid, but I can stop it from coming through my doors.”

And to that, I say, no problem. More power to him. If he wants to pass up paying customers, that’s his business. It’s not like those whom he labels “your kind” don’t have anywhere else to get a drink.

Given today’s hyper-sensitivity about name-calling and bigotry, I expect some of you might think I’m endorsing discrimination against those who happen to be different. You also might think there would be a ferocious backlash in the community – perhaps even a lawsuit - demanding that any establishment open to the public should have to serve everyone, regardless of their persuasion. You know, tolerance, celebrating diversity and all that.

But you would be wrong. There has been no backlash, no threat of lawsuits. As you may have guessed, this is not a watering hole in Arizona. It is a gay bar – The Abbey Food & Bar – in West Hollywood, Calif. The people on founder David Cooley’s enemies list are state legislators who favor letting other businesses do exactly what the Abbey is doing – choose who they want to do business with.

Cooley isn’t just making a statement on his own, either. The Los Angeles CBS television affiliate reported that he is trying to get other area restaurants, hotels and retailers “that appreciate their LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) customers,” to impose similar bans.

Again, I say, more power to him. If his was the only bar in LA, then maybe there would be a case to require him to open his doors to everybody. But the city is awash in bars and booze. It’s just being pro-choice, and we’re all in favor of that, aren’t we?

Uh, well, there’s the problem. You are allowed to choose only if you make the politically correct choice. In today’s America, it’s OK for Cooley to follow his conscience in discriminating against certain people, but it's not OK for those who disagree with him to do so.

The Abbey also declares itself “The Best Gay Bar In The World,” with no community backlash. Imagine if another bar called itself “The Best Straight Bar In The World.” That would be considered exclusionary, thinly veiled hate speech.

Cooley’s move, of course, is in response to bills in states including Kansas, Arizona, Idaho and Ohio that would grant businesses the same freedom-of-conscience protection granted to individuals. In Arizona, the bill that has created such a firestorm, until it was recently vetoed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, would have amended the state’s 15-year-old Religious Freedom Restoration Act so that it would cover businesses.

That law was modeled on a similar federal law signed by noted gay hater and bigot Bill Clinton after large (and clearly hateful) bipartisan majorities supported it in both houses of Congress. The amendment would have allowed small businesses to decline work that violated their consciences, unless the government could show a compelling reason why their refusal was unreasonable or unjust.

That is a sensible way to treat matters of conscience. But you would have thought the proposal was a companion to Uganda’s recent law making homosexuality illegal. There were stories about it every night on network television news, declaring that it would grant carte blanche discrimination.

The National Football League threatened to change the location of next year’s Super Bowl, scheduled for the University of Phoenix Stadium. The Hispanic National Bar Association announced it would not hold its 40th Annual Convention, scheduled for September 2015, in Phoenix.

Multiple business leaders wrote frantic letters to Brewer, begging her to veto the bill so the state’s economy wouldn’t crash.

All because of a proposal that would allow every business owner the freedom to do what David Cooley is doing.

The same sort of dangerous absurdity is on display in Colorado, where a baker faces imprisonment because he declined to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, in a state where gay marriage isn’t even legal.

Obviously, Jack Phillips is not the only baker in Colorado. The couple could easily have gotten a cake from another vendor. Given the reach of today’s social media, they could have hurt Phillips economically by going on a site like Yelp and giving his bakery a scathing review. That’s the way the market is supposed to work.

But, instead, a judge has ordered Phillips to provide a service the couple could easily obtain elsewhere.

Understand, this is not institutional discrimination. It has no connection – none – to shameful acts like requiring blacks to ride in the back of municipal buses.

I recall, not long ago, when my gay and lesbian friends were arguing for “tolerance.” Now, the demand is for endorsement. Instead of gays being in the closet, those who disagree with them are being forced into the closet, lest they face economic damage or even prison.

Is that really what the gay rights movement wants to be about?

Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net

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