I am going to offer three examples by way of considering the issue of whether or not a business owner should be permitted to refuse service to a customer on moral grounds.
I’ll lead into the first example by recalling the business of my grandmother. From a reverend old house in Austin with four Ionic columns facing West 14th, constructed in 1873, she directed a small but profitable operation. She and my grandfather lived on the original structure’s bottom floor; the rest she transformed into nine apartments rented to single occupants. She had a peculiar requirement of her tenants, though not so peculiar back in the Fifties and Sixties: she demanded that they not bring home overnight guests. Naturally, the intent of the stricture was not to ban a visiting parent or relative. Put simply, tenants were not to import boyfriends or girlfriends onto the premises for night-long stays. Today, any mass of idlers on their iPhones would vote down such moral “bigotry” in a trice. Yet the restriction was indeed founded upon my grandmother’s moral convictions, and the times were initially not against her even in Austin, Texas.
Since she paid the utility bills for her tenants, as a practical-minded advocate might observe, a long stream of casual lovers visiting one or more occupants could represent a not inconsiderable financial burden to her—but this was not the crux of the issue for my grandmother. Nevertheless, our advocate might add that toward the end of her life, when tenants increasingly began to dishonor this part of their verbal pledge, abuse of the furnishings and defacing of the property also increased. Those like me who were spectators of this cultural drama are tempted to conclude that one kind of moral dissolution played into several others.
With that much in preface, let me now offer my first hypothetical. Imagine a hotel (or “an hotel”, as people used to say) in Township X. The route from W to Z is a long one, X being the only stop besides Y, which is another 120 miles down the road. Yet the proprietor of X’s one hotel refuses to rent rooms to people of a certain race or ethnicity. All responsible adults would agree that this is intolerable. The situation’s trespass upon decency does not simply reside in the additional two-hour drive that a weary wayfarer might have to make to the hotels of Y. In fact it’s really irrelevant whether or not X has two dozen hotels and whether or not all except this one take every comer. The moral issue is absolute and non-negotiable. Extreme physical handicaps aside, people must not be denied service for reasons having nothing to do with their chosen behavior.
So the distinction involved in this two-part example should be clear. My grandmother’s objection to a certain kind of tenant was plainly and wholly a matter of moral conduct; the person who wished to reside in her house need only have abstained from certain behavior which she found objectionable. In contrast, the helpless traveler who might find himself turned away from the hotel in X would be banned for reasons over which he had utterly no control. This is inhumane and blockheaded in a primitive tribal fashion unacceptable to free, fair-minded people.
Example Two: Now consider a baker who is approached by a homosexual couple and requested to make a cake for their wedding. He politely declines, offering in excuse his moral principles as taught by his religion. The cake itself he consents to bake, yet he refuses to decorate it in the fashion required of him; as a compromise, he offers to contact for his would-be clients another baker two blocks over. None of this satisfies the gay couple. Instead, they sue him for everything he’s worth—and win, effectively ruining his business.
Let’s make the example more interesting: let’s say that the baker specifies as a ground of his moral objection that encouraging the gay lifestyle may lead to one of the parties in such unions committing suicide. Let us say further that after this particular couple has been married for five years, one of the pair indeed kills himself, leaving behind a letter that explains as a motive his long-standing troubles about his sexuality. Now we have solid evidence that the baker’s worries were only too well justified. Would he not have every right to counter-sue the survivor of the marriage, seeking all the money that was originally taken from him, as well as the projected profits of business never transacted and pain-and-suffering? He feared that one of these two might severely suffer if a fraternal stop sign were not thrown up in his path: it appears that this is precisely what happened. How could the baker possibly lose his case in court?
Nevertheless, we all know that he wouldn’t stand a chance. This inequity is well worth considering. It tells us much about the motives driving the forced acceptance in our society of non-biblical or conventionally aberrant lifestyles over the past three or four decades.
Final Example: Say that a pitching coach is approached by a father who demands that his son be taught how to throw a curveball. This is not an extravagant request. The boys is twelve, and many of his age are already throwing the pitch; yet our coach is convinced that giving the father what he wants might imperil the healthy development of the child’s arm, so he refuses. The father sues the coach. Evidence is sketchy. The coach’s decision must be said to be based upon a subjective value judgment rather than clinical research, or even practical experience. Furthermore, plenty of other coaches would willingly teach the boy just as directed. For that reason alone, the father’s suit would surely be thrown out of court: the fine points of the coach’s claim would never come under scrutiny. We could accept them as a professional’s judgment of a vague health risk, or we could conclude that the coach was irrationally but sincerely apprehensive about straining the boy’s arm. Either way, however, the abundance of other options for the client would render a punitive judgment against the professional unnecessary, and even absurd.
What distinguishes these circumstances from those of Case One, where the traveler in search of lodging might have sought a room in several of X’s other hotels? Our coach’s ground of objection has dubious moral value but is not overtly immoral; that is to say, we can recognize a predisposition to honor a moral objection even if we find it silly. The defendant’s concern clearly focuses on harm being done to an innocent party. When my grandmother refused to rent to people whose lifestyle was not abstinent, she too would readily have explained (if asked) that the sexual revolution was causing great damage to innocent victims, many of whom were not even aware of themselves as such.
Yet here we stray into a gray area. I am by no means confident that as of the year 2000—and certainly not by 2015—a plaintiff might not have won a case against my grandmother, even though Austin abounds in single-occupant apartments. The difference between her case and that of the reluctant coach would obviously be that the latter had not fallen afoul of political correctness, whereas the former might very likely be judged deserving of punishment for clinging to antediluvian values.
Conclusions: First of all, the convenient presence or inconvenient absence of a comparable server in these cases should never be considered. I think the matter surfaces so often because we’ve grown uncomfortable with making moral determinations; but if a potential client is refused service based on factors that are morally invalid (and have no practical merit, as might certain physical limitations), then he shouldn’t be subjected to the trouble and humiliation of traveling even next door for proper attention.
Second, a genuine moral objection should target a specific act, not vaguely associate the client with a constellation of remote acts. My grandmother wouldn’t have refused to rent to a pretty young woman on the supposition that the girl would be more pursued by men and hence more likely to break house rules. Our hotel in X shouldn’t refuse Muslim lodgers because of 9/11. The baker shouldn’t decline to produce a generic cake because the customer “looks gay” and might top off the confection later by posing two male figures at an altar. The pitching coach shouldn’t refuse lessons to a certain boy with the claim, “Black kids get into sports and then neglect their studies.” A moral objection responds to specific behavior and not to a careless ascription of behavioral patterns to broad groups.
Finally—and what’s obviously the central point of this piece—our system has been tending to adjudicate these cases, not with respect to how well they meet genuine moral criteria, with respect to how well they conform to politically correct doctrine. No one cares about our somewhat over-punctilious pitching coach: he can go free, because his objections have no political value whatever. In many locales, however, the system brings all of its force to requiring that bakers—and tee-shirt designers, and candlestick-makers—accommodate the overt promotion of the gay lifestyle. Resistance to that lifestyle is assumed definitively immoral from the outset. Or in my grandmother’s case, if a promiscuous tenant decided to haul her into court in 2019, does any of us doubt that she would be forced to rent the room and also pay damages for “emotional distress”? Our courts haven’t so much thrown out biblical principles as they have decided to enforce an airy “Good Book” existing only in the heads of activist judges. Do you suppose, at least, that the supercilious hotelier of X may still not turn away a traveler whose hair-color he doesn’t like? I’m not so sure. A Best Western hotel in a German city turned away attendees at an Alternatif fur Deutschland (AfD) conference last year. The new-and-improved Klan is likely coming soon to a neighborhood near you.
I offer this final thought, not as a conclusion, but as an honest query. Are we seeing this Procrustean surge of PC enforcement from the bench because we, as a decaying society, have decided to be done once and for all with guilt? I’ve observed in my lifetime two favorite ways that people tormented by the inward conviction of their behavior’s wrongness will handle their torture—I mean, besides repenting and changing their ways. One strategy is to repeat the behavior in hopes that the accompanying sense of trespass gets old and falls away. The other, often used in tandem with the first, is to browbeat bystanders into silence, or even into praise of the culpable behavior.
Isn’t that what’s happening right now? “You’re not going to get off with saying nothing against what I’ve done—no! You’re going to bow to me, and then you’re going to rear back and applaud, and cry, ‘Oh, how brave! How noble! How we admire you!’ Do it… or die!” This is the utterance of a damned soul teetering on the edge of Hell. When the legal system glowers at us over that soul’s shoulder, exacting obedience with its clenched fist, we’re apt to think that our lives have reached a very dark place; but Hell is much darker, and choruses of forced praise will not suffice to make it disappear.