Some 30 years ago, a common retort by my classmates when told that we could not do something was, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?”
I don’t hear that rhetorical question much these days. Maybe that’s because the answer is changing before our very eyes.
One of my favorite restaurants posts a sign that was once common: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
Well, if they refuse service to someone who isn’t an able-bodied heterosexual white male, they’d better have a good lawyer and deep pockets defend themselves.
In today’s America, a restaurant – like most businesses – is a “place of public accommodation,” which means that someone to whom service is refused can file a civil rights lawsuit seeking damages for unlawful discrimination due to race, gender, creed, disability or sexual orientation.
If management had a valid, legal reason for telling the sorehead to leave their property, they may win in court – after spending $50,000 on a lawyer. Or they may cut their losses and agree to a settlement.
Regardless, they will think twice before refusing service to anyone else in our “free country.”
In fact, the Colorado Civil Rights Division advises that places of public accommodation cannot “reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
Anti-discrimination laws were instituted with a worthy intent: to protect unfair treatment of black Americans who, in some places, were told they couldn’t buy food for their family at the local grocery store or be treated at the hometown hospital.
It’s one thing to protest if can’t feed your family without driving – or walking – to the next town but quite another to file a lawsuit when one baker doesn’t want to decorate your wedding cake but dozens of other bakers in the same city will gladly do it.
Recently, my friend Laura Carno asked compelling questions about freedom regarding Colorado’s Masterpiece Bakery which declined to bake a wedding cake for a homosexual couple:
“Who’s liberty is more important? The baker’s right to do business only with whom he wishes or the customer’s right to do business with that specific baker?”
(To be clear, baker Jack Phillips didn’t decline to do business with the couple. He offered to sell them anything in his store but didn’t want to create a cake for a same-sex wedding.)
Phillips argues that his First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech are violated if he can be forced to create a cake with a message to which he objects.
In New Mexico, courts have ruled that a homosexual couple can force a specific photographer to attend and photograph their wedding against her will. In any other context, that’s kidnapping.
Carno argues that “the religious liberty argument is too exclusive. What if the baker was an atheist and didn’t want to bake the cake? Freedom covers the atheist baker as much as the Christian baker.”
That’s an excellent argument for freedom in a free country. But it today’s America, our courts and lawmakers often pit our freedoms against each other, which is contrary to a proper understanding of freedom itself.
True freedom doesn’t cost another person anything. I can say and do things you find offensive, but I can’t force you to listen or participate and you can’t force me to be silent.
But in today’s America, exercising our freedom requires special permission.
If Jack Phillips had declined to make a wedding cake for an opposite-sex couple, they would have simply found another baker because they had no claim of unlawful discrimination.
Likewise, Phillips built his case on religious freedom because in today’s twisted jurisprudence, it wasn’t good enough to say, “I just didn’t want to bake this cake.”
In a free country, life should be an ocean of freedom with small islands of laws that occasionally limit our liberty.
In America in 2015, those islands have grown into massive continents that we all must navigate while watching our freedoms steadily eroded by lawmakers and judges who swore an oath to protect them.