When the owners of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because she works for President Trump, the mob of public opinion on both sides promptly took up their torches, pitchforks, and Twitter accounts. Charlie Kirk and others condemned the Red Hen as “backward thinking intolerant leftists.” But were the actions of the Red Hen really so much more “intolerant” than those of Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop? In Denver, Phillips was running a small business that designed incredibly beautiful wedding cakes when he was asked by Charlie Craig and David Mullins to create a wedding cake for their same-sex wedding ceremony. Phillips, trying to uphold his deeply held personal convictions, chose not to create the cake for them, although he offered other similar services to the men. If you believe that Phillips should have the right to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, the same logic would mean that the Red Hen also has the right to ask Sanders to leave.
One of the most crucial rights we have is the freedom of association: without the freedom to associate– and to not associate– with whomever we wish, our other rights are far less substantially protected. Our claim to the rights to believe, to speak and petition, or to use our private property for business would all be reduced to toothless yipping unless we also have the right to assemble with other similar believers, to form committees, or to contract with other property owners. Inherent in each of these is an opposite right to choose not to assemble with disparate believers, to exclude dissidents from our advocacy groups, or to refuse to do business with someone. The freedom to associate and the inverse right to not associate extend to all of our other rights and freedoms in society.
There are laws on the books in almost every state, city, and village protecting civil rights for race, gender, and so forth, so it’s not as if business owners have a carte blanche to turn away whomever they wish. But we can also exercise our freedom to associate in the free market to deal with discrimination democratically. When businesses make decisions to deny service to certain groups or people, other consumers see that and word spreads. People then have an opportunity to “vote with their dollars,” and support those businesses whose values they support: some won’t shop at Starbucks because of its funding connections to Planned Parenthood; others won’t eat at Chick-Fil-A because of its funding connections to anti-gay groups. It is good to support businesses that share your values, but it is cognitively dissonant to praise one small business owner simply for sticking to their principles while condemning another for doing the same. The Red Hen and Masterpiece both tried to do what they thought was the brave, moral thing. Why do we condemn one and praise the other? Rather than simply calling Masterpiece Cakeshop or the Red Hen “intolerant,” people might have said that “the Red Hen does not support the Trump administration,” or that “Masterpiece does not support gay marriage.” Those are factual statements that inform other people about the values of those businesses. If I also did not support the Trump administration or gay marriage, those messages would be a signal to me to patronize those businesses and vice versa.
Liberty is a vacuum and the freedom to associate is no different, we can fill it with malice or with goodwill, but we must fill it with something. When someone is excluded out of malice, hatred, and a refusal to recognize their human dignity, the exclusion should be condemned. But we have to remember that one man’s “bigotry” is another man’s “courage in the face of power.” Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen said of her decision that “there are moments when people need to live up to their convictions,” that sometimes “people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.” Jack Phillips wrote in an op-ed for USA Today, “I am responsible for my own choices. And it was that responsibility that led me to decline… This wasn’t just a business decision. More than anything else, it was a reflection of my commitment to my faith.” You might disagree with the convictions of one or both of these small business owners, but they made their decision trying to do what was required by their conscience, not to humiliate or denigrate the other person. If one wishes to champion the freedom to not associate in the case of Jack Phillips, one must equally support Stephanie Wilkinson’s rights to not associate. It is easy to side with our ideological team and condemn one decision while supporting the other; it is more honest, if not easy, to acknowledge that the same decision, the same sacrifice is being made in both cases.
(Photo: VOA, Public Domain)