The Freedom to Discriminate

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In late January the state of Washington passed a gay-rights bill banning discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, and accommodations. It was an odd issue: virtually all public voices were for it, except some conservative Christian ministers. In a place like Seattle, which has the greatest concentration of gays in the Pacific Northwest, people could not imagine a principled reason for opposing the bill. I saw this at a public forum with state legislators. A woman stood up and asked one of the Republicans, a party leader, why he opposed it. He deflected the question by interpreting it as a query about why his party opposed it, and then said he couldn’t speak for the party on that issue.

A libertarian would oppose it, I think, because a libertarian believes in the freedom of association. Freedom implies a private right to discriminate. That doesn’t mean the libertarian wants to discriminate, only that he thinks discrimination should not be criminalized. But that argument applies to all anti-discrimination law, and nobody wanted to extend it that far. Even the libertarians didn’t make it – at least, not that I saw. Apart from a couple of suburban ministers chiefly concerned with sin, the opponents didn’t say anything.

The bill passed the final chamber of the legislature when a Republican state senator from Seattle’s suburbs changed his vote. The media praised him for voting his conscience, which maybe he was. About then the Seattle Times ran a news story about discrimination against gays. Seattle, Tacoma, and some other cities have had gay-rights ordinances for years – and it turns out there aren’t many complaints. Even fewer cases have been won by complainants. The paper found one victory in Tacoma, involving two gay women who were denied a family membership at the YMCA. In Seattle, a city a good deal more liberal (and gay) than Tacoma, there was one victor under its longstanding gay-rights ordinance. He was one of a group of waiters who had been fired and replaced by young gay men. This waiter was a heterosexual man. He was awarded $5,000.

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