Public Accommodation Laws

April 9th, 2015 by rlaager

I wrote the following comment in response to a Facebook post about religious freedom laws, which have been in the news lately.

I appreciate the argument that people should not be forced into conducting business with others, but I’m not sure if any bright line rule works well here. Some things to contemplate:

Is it the right balance to allow a gas station owner to refuse to sell gas to gay people, black people, members of another religion, etc.? Does your answer change if all the gas station owners in the same town feel the same way? (For example, if the result is Muslims can’t buy gas in a town.) What if we scale up to the vast majority of the gas station owners in a county, half a state, or more?

Should the threshold should be different for “essentials” (food, fuel, housing, etc.) than for optional things (wedding cakes)? If so, what’s essential? Is Internet access essential? What about cable TV? Maybe they’re separately special because they tend to be natural monopolies? What about the one formal wear business for a hundred miles?

In regards to the cake examples… One possible answer is that speech is different than products. For example, we might say: yes, we should prohibit the black baker from refusing to sell a cake solely because the buyer is a KKK member, but we will not compel him to write a message on it with which he disagrees.

If so, is the baker’s free speech right absolute? Or if he is willing to write “Congratulations!” on a cake for some customers, can he be compelled to use the same text for anyone (including for gay weddings, graduating from seminary of another religion, etc.)?

What about pharmacists and various types of birth control? Or doctors and abortions? Or doctors refusing patients on (non-religious, public health grounds) who are anti-vaccine for non-medical reasons?

To come full circle, can the gas station owner refuse to sell to people with tattoos for non-religious reasons (because he associates tattoos with gangs)? What if he just thinks tattoos are stupid? If religious reasons are special, who decides what is a legitimate religious interest and what is a legitimate religion?

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