By Alex Entz
Let us quickly entertain an exercise in changing perspectives.
This past month saw talking heads, activists, and politicians alike all hammering Arizona over the “anti-gay” bill that landed on Governor Jan Brewer’s desk. The bill, though it never explicitly referenced gays, would have extended legal protection to individuals and private entities who refused to serve others for religious reasons.
The outcry was predictably loud and vapid. On CNN, a commentator called a supporter of the bill a “homophobe”; elsewhere, news outlets decried that a “pro-discrimination” bill could still be passed in this day and age. Governor Brewer vetoed the bill under intense outside pressure, a decision that the New Yorker, focused myopically on the “anti-gay” angle and apparently unaware that Brewer’s decision should have been made with an eye to her constituents rather than to the sentiments of the East Coast voicebox, said it was a sign of “an astonishing American revolution”. (Others had more nuanced thoughts).
But let us shift the perspective of the discussion, shall we? Just what is the proper frame of reference? What if I phrased it like this: should the government be able to force you to go against your political or religious beliefs?
That is, of course, essentially what has happened in Arizona. If private citizens are opposed to delivering goods or services to another person on the basis of a personal conviction, they will nonetheless be coerced to do so by a government that knows “better” than them.
I don’t want to take away from the position of the Left on this issue. It is, in my opinion, antithetical to the teachings of the Bible to deny service to an individual on the basis of sexuality, or race, or political orientation. That said, we need to own up to a certain fact: sometimes, people are bigots. Every single person in this country holds views that are not built entirely on love and reason. To be colloquial—sometimes, people just suck. But we lose a serious part of our liberty, our freedom, if we agree that the government knows what moral system is best. People have their own beliefs and opinions, and those should be respected, lest they infringe on the rights of others.
What if the government one day decides that your moral system is bigoted?
Should parents have their children taken away if they teach them “hateful” doctrines? What if they teach their kids that evolution is false? Should we no longer be allowed to vote on amendments banning gay marriage or allowing for concealed carry, as these views are “hateful” or “dangerous’? In each case, the government has, according to the precedent set in Arizona, a compelling and legitimate interest to step in and ensure that a certain moral precedent is upheld. In each case, individuals may sincerely believe in their position while at the same time loving those on the other side of the issue, but the government’s interference immediately labels one side as “right” and the other as “wrong”.
It is instructive to think about why this law was put forth in Arizona to begin with. In New Mexico, a photographer declined to take pictures of a same-sex wedding due to religious beliefs. The State forced her to pay a fine of almost $7,000. This example is not alone—bakers and photographers in several other states have faced similar recrimination after refusing to support gay weddings.
But it’s not just wedding pictures and cakes. The government has become a tool to implement a liberal version of morality in many other arenas, too. The health insurance mandate that forced religious organizations to provide abortifacients and birth control against their beliefs; failing to enforce federal laws on drug use even when those laws clash with state laws; banning soda and other “unhealthy” food and drink. In each case, and in many others, the governing elite has decided that it knows better than the individual. If you hold a deep conviction, you can be fined or worse—your conviction is wrong. You should have known better.
Do people have a right to force others to take pictures of them, or to force others to host them on private land against the proprietor’s will? Fundamentally, we must realize that we cannot even begin to approach this question, and this conversation, unless we have a well-articulated rights theory. Do people have a right to your time, your property, your money? Your beliefs? The answer seems to be self-evident: no. Freedom means the ability to make your own decisions. Sometimes, those decisions will be for the wrong reasons. But they are your own, and you must face up to them and their consequences.
Of course, the opponent to the position that individuals should determine their own morality, rather than the government, will at this point refer to Jim Crow. This is a powerful counterargument—we saw decades of entrenched, institutional injustice that separated whites and blacks. Should there have been no government intervention there?
This question obfuscates the issue, however. Much of Jim Crow came through the government, and so government action to overturn discrimination in the public sphere was just and necessary. But the issue of private proprietors and companies is different; it is a problem solved best by civil society rather than by government intervention. We must trust that the long-term consequences of avoiding government intervention are better than short-term, knee-jerk reactions to social injustice. Sit-ins, education, protests and boycotts—these are all legitimate ways to show bigoted people that they are bigots (indeed, Milton Friedman and Gary Becker often argued against government intervention in this regard on the principle that competition would induce companies to serve as many people as possible—capitalism is a wonderfully integrative system). Over time, such action and education can organically change a culture from the ground up. Rather than government action that stifles discussion and civil reform without ever truly addressing the root causes of the injustice, it seeks to fix the injustice at the core of the issue, without the state officially telling an individual that their beliefs are wrong, and therefore punishable by law. We must believe in the power of people.
Those supporting Brewer’s veto have lauded themselves on their victory, and I admit that their intentions are pure. And yet, their abdication on the questions of “Who should determine your morality?”, and “Do others have a publicly-enforceable right to receive the private services you provide?” betrays the shallowness of their position. Their willingness to force people to act contrarily to their religious beliefs is a dangerous idea, one that we would be best served to avoid. And so I ask: who do you want to determine your morality?