(Please note a conference you may be interested in attending below)
Money talks. And yesterday, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer brought a sigh of relief to many Arizona companies when she vetoed a law that would have allowed Arizona businesses to refuse service to people when the service went against their religious beliefs.
The reason Republican legislators in Arizona’s House and Senate brought forward the bill stems from reports that some American business owners were being sued for discriminating against gay or lesbian clientele. For example, a florist or caterer who would not work with a gay or lesbian couple for their wedding because their religious beliefs did not support two women or two men marrying one another.
It’s a dilemma for some religious people in business and one that doesn’t just affect American commerce, but Canadian businesses as well. A number of Canadian businesses right now are in litigation for their refusal to provide services, not just to gay and lesbian customers, but to women when their religion says they can’t work with or touch women.
If there is one thing that is important in Canada, just like the U.S., it is religious freedom, and while it’s not an absolute right, it’s a very powerful and important right. When it comes to large business, I’m sure it’s easier to separate issues of religion from issues of making money – better just to keep them apart and expect your employees to tow the company and profit line.
But when it’s a small owner/operator, it might be tough when you think you are literally going to hell if you support people who go against your strongly held values. Take for example a Canadian couple who have a bed and breakfast and refused to rent a room to two women. It’s kinda close to home when it’s actually in your home, to just think of them as customers.
Perhaps the easiest thing is to just let the market decide on these issues. After all, if someone doesn’t want my money, based on their religious conviction, then I’m more than happy to take my money elsewhere.
That’s the argument I made to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry in my fax to their office last weekend (with a cc to Gov. Brewer). Jack and I bought a rental property a few years ago in Arizona and we love it (so does Willis). Let’s face it, with people dying all over the world standing up for their principles or dying because someone doesn’t like their religion, having to sell our place in Arizona would not be a hardship…but it would be a huge disappointment. The few times we are down there, we love the golf, the sunshine and the heat. But since there are plenty of places to golf and enjoy the sun, it just wouldn’t be worth it to spend money in a state that doesn’t really want us. That’s why my fax was to the State Chamber as well as other local Chambers: Nothing personal, it’s just business. Do what you want…but suffer the economic consequences.
I didn’t realize how close to home that principle applied until, to my surprise, Jack told me yesterday that when he was arranging our wedding invitations seven years ago in Victoria, the printer he’d done business with, told Jack they would not print our invitations. Perhaps sensing I’d start some litigation and planning a wedding is chaotic enough, Jack didn’t tell me about this, but instead he stopped doing business with that printer and steered others away from them.
Arizona quickly realized that the almighty dollar was more important than some Arizona citizens who believe that the Almighty would take revenge on them. When you have American Airlines, Apple, and other big companies saying, “this is bad for business”, I guess you listen. In fact, I’m thrilled that in this day of big money swaying so much public policy, it’s nice to see that big and little money (simple tourists for example) is also able to sway public policy when it comes to issues of equality. While a certain faction of the American religious right will find new and inventive ways to try to stem the tide towards acceptance of gay and lesbian people, I think this week’s huge backlash to Arizona’s attempt will likely put an end to other American states trying similar “religious freedom” legislation.
But here’s the thing…we can’t just let the markets decide these issues. The state (meaning any government) has got to put its stamp of opposition to discrimination. Even if it’s unpopular, our government policy has got to ensure the rights of minorities are not negatively impacted by the majority, just because there are more of them. When public policy dictates that all law-abiding citizens must be free of discrimination, let's face it, it’s going to be hard for some people to stand by their religious principles and be in the business of serving the public. That might be a hard pill to swallow, but it's the price we pay for living in democracies with constitutional guarantees protecting against discrimination.
We could just think of this as “gay rights” but if we allow people to discriminate based on their religious beliefs, there are plenty of passages in the Bible and other religious texts that have been used to justify slavery and the condemnation of certain religions. If we say someone doesn’t have to serve a gay couple at their restaurant, we better be prepared for a Muslim or Jewish customer to also be refused service. Once we start thinking of all the ways people can discriminate, based on their strongly held religious beliefs, it makes it tougher to just let the market decide.
We can’t underestimate the impact that having a government (hence “the people”) say discrimination is bad. It allows others to take a stand when someone discriminates and even allows them to use the force of the law on their side. If you don’t think that has influence, just take a look at when the opposite happens. Attacks on gays and lesbians in Russia, Uganda & Nigeria are up substantially because the state has told the public it’s not only good to discriminate, but there will be no repercussions when you take violent action.
It’s nice to see business having such a positive impact on issues of equality…but it’s not enough.
Winnipeg conference: I’ve never been asked this before, but since I was asked, I’m happy to “plug” a conference taking place May 7 to 9, 2014 in Winnipeg. The Canadian Association for the Prevention of Discrimination and Harassment in Higher Education (CAPDHHE Yikes, what a mouthful!) will be having their annual conference with the theme “Moving Beyond Theory: Best practises in advancing diversity and addressing discrimination and harassment”. At this conference, attendees will be addressing and discussing issues of balancing many rights colleges and universities face. Having worked with many colleges and universities in Canada, I’m very aware of the challenges when you consider academic freedom vs. freedom of speech vs. freedom from discrimination. If you work in a post-secondary institution or just have an interest in these issues (they don’t screen applicants), you may be interested in attending this conference. Contact information can be found here. And perhaps I’ll see you there since I’m the opening keynote speaker (but I don’t get extra money with extra attendance…tragically).
Last skill testing question: Anne Guillo of Courtenay, B.C. was the first person to tell me that Joseph McCarthy went one step too far on his "communism under every bed" committee on February 18, 1954 by accusing the American military of being infiltrated by communists. She recieved a copy of my book, Managing Human Rights at Work. Congratulations Anne.
Today's skill testing question:: A number of Native Americans in Minnesota created the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968. Thier focus was to improve the lives of American Natives. Years later, on February 27, 1973, AIM and others got involved in an action that people still talk about today.The first person who can tell me what happened on February 27, will win a copy of my book, Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters. Merely hit reply on your email and I'll get the answer right away.
This blog: http://www.humanrightseachday.com/
My website: http://www.stephenhammond.ca
My Podcast: Type in “HumanRightsaDay” to the iTunes store and listen to each day's event from my book, Steps in the Rights Direction, or just click here.
My Twitter: http://twitter.com/Rightstoday (each day has historical human rights info)
Stephen Hammond, B.A., LL.B., CSP, is a lawyer-turned professional speaker. He’s written two books, Managing Human Rights at Work: 101 practical tips to prevent human rights disasters and Steps in the Rights Direction: 365 human rights celebrations and tragedies that inspired Canada and the world. Managing Human Rights at Work can be purchased on his website www.StephenHammond.ca He also has a new Harassment Training Manual called "Respect in a Box", with information found here.
copyright - Stephen Hammond - “If money talks, why not let business decide if they want to discriminate or not?"