Simply Greek, a favorite eatery of Uptown residents and home of the $5 gyro, has a rather remarkable sign on its front door. The notice states in no uncertain terms that Simply Greek will not serve employees of Standard Parking, the behemoth parking authority with a near-monopoly around University Circle. I am curious about investigating the paradox of businesses arbitrarily refusing to serve certain customers. This issue sees both the left and the right take contradictory opinions and leads me to uncomfortable conclusions.
This past summer, The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia refused to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders because of her position in the Trump administration. Instantly, a feedback loop formed; the right called for boycotts of the offending restaurant and denounced the radical leftists who were too willing to argue in fits of vindictiveness. The left, on the other hand, defended the restaurant owner, pointing out the harmful and dangerous policies perpetrated by Sanders and the Trump administration. Democrats also noted that businesses can direct patrons to leave if needed.
This issue has been stirring controversy on the Supreme Court as well. Though the decision of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was limited in scope by then-Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion, it left open the possibility of individuals turning away potential customers due to religious convictions. A similar chorus echoed through the national media but with roles curiously reversed. The right cheered a businessman running his store and following his beliefs, while the left moaned about discrimination and prejudice against gay men.
The roles are switched as if with a mirror, left becoming right and right becoming left. For the life of me, I do not see any structural difference between the two arguments, and if the structure of the argument used to support the business in one case is valid, then it is valid in the other case as well. Unless there is some fundamental difference between being gay and being Republican, to praise a restaurant refusing a GOP official but become enraged over a gay couple being refused a wedding cake is as backwards as criticizing the restarant but celebrating the bakery.
In all these cases, a business owner decided to allow their personal opinions influence their business decisions. Whether those opinions were political, religious or purely personal, not recognizing the individual autonomy of the shopkeeper in these sorts of decisions is a dangerous balancing act. Making actions on personal opinion illegal could very well force entrepreneurs with strong convictions to leave private enterprise altogether. Alternatively, releasing owners from any responsibility to serve all paying customers could open the door for nastier forms of discrimination that most of society rejects. We are not far removed as a culture from the days of “No Irish Need Apply” and “Whites Only” and allowing bakers to turn away gay couples uses the exact same reasoning as allowing restaurants to reject black patrons.
Not all cases of businesses picking and choosing their customers are flexible. No one decides their race and few people decide their religion, so opening the floodgates of personal choice in selling goods and services is an invitation to regress to shameful periods of our nation’s past. It is just as illiberal, though, to use the big stick of government to force decisions onto men and women peddling their wares and skills.
The solution to this dilemma will undoubtedly anger everyone, because most current political thought does not deal with overarching concerns about personal liberty and idealism, but rather with which groups are worthy of compassion. An easy solution would be drawing some arbitrary line and allowing discrimination on one side of it. However, it does not seem tenable to allow businesses to reject customers on religious or political conviction but not on racial grounds when the arguments for each are practically identical.
Therefore, I tack to the radical alternative.
By entering public business, a mutual promise is made between society and businessperson. At its core, the business asks a price, and the public can decide to pay the price or go elsewhere. The trust of the public supports businesses in ways beyond the purely financial, and therefore businesses have a responsibility to be impartial. Anyone walking in, cash in hand, cannot be turned away; doing so would violate the compact that underlies American business.
So, Sarah Huckabee Sanders should not have been forced out of The Red Hen. Standard Parking should not be barred from Simply Greek, though I empathize, I really do. The now-infamous baker should not have wiggled out of conducting business, waving a bible to excuse himself.
There, now everyone’s upset.
Steve Kerby is a 4th-year studying astronomy and physics. He thinks gyros are delicious.