“Can’t we all just get along?” Apparently not. In America, we want to promote an open, tolerant society for the sake of access and for the sake of long-term stability. We also want to preserve people’s rights and not force anyone to do things that violate their speech or conscience. When and how the government should intervene to promote access or protect rights has been a never-ending debate. We have made some logical progress in making reasonable distinctions amongst competing interests, but often we encounter incidents where the lines seem to be blurred. Sometimes advocates for certain positions appear to contradict their own principles or take liberties with certain distinctions when it benefits them while heavily discounting the distinctions when they do not. One such example occurred in Virginia recently.
“Metzger Bar and Butchery has always prided itself on being an inclusive environment for people to dine in. In eight years of service we have very rarely refused service to anyone who wished to dine with us. Recently we refused service to a group that had booked an event with us after the owners of Metzger found out it was a group of donors to a political organization that seeks to deprive women and LGBTQ+ persons of their basic human rights in Virginia. We have always refused service to anyone for making our staff uncomfortable or unsafe and this was the driving force behind our decision. Many of our staff are women and/or members of the LGBTQ+ community. All of our staff are people with rights who deserve dignity and a safe work environment. We respect our staff’s established rights as humans and strive to create a work environment where they can do their jobs with dignity, comfort and safety.”
In other words, the restaurant disagreed with the group’s religious beliefs, made assumptions about their motives and character, refused them service at a place of public accomodation, and used the unsupported, subjectively-defined excuse of “making our staff uncomfortable or unsafe” as a justification for the discrimination. If there had ever been any actual inappropriate contact between these two establishments and/or any of their people, it does not appear to have been reported thus far.
The Family Foundation, according to their website, “is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, non partisan, faith-based organization” that seeks to “preserve and promote the family in Virginia as God’s foundation upon which all free and thriving societies are built.” Upon reviewing their stances on their focus issues as well as their actions, it appears the group maintains a strong, principled, standard conservative Christian worldview and political position. There does not appear to be anything indicating hateful rhetoric or advocacy of violence towards any persons/groups or anything that would suggest the restaurant’s employees could reasonably fear for their safety.
“Have you ever been denied a meal because of your beliefs? Last night, our team and supporters got that firsthand experience when Metzger’s Bar and Butchery in Richmond, VA refused to service our pre-reserved event, leaving us scrambling just moments before. For weeks, we had planned a gathering of supporters and interested people in a private room to fellowship and receive an update on our work. About an hour and a half before the event was set to take place, one of the restaurant’s owners called our team to cancel the event. As our VP of Operations explained that guests were arriving at their restaurant shortly, she asked for an explanation. Sure enough, an employee looked up our organization, and their wait staff refused to serve us.”
As a society, we must choose how we want to handle using the law to govern associations and interactions between non-consenting individuals in general public accomodation, contractual work, and other commercial dealings. We could follow the Libertarian model, which would essentially allow anyone offering a good or service to refuse dealing with anyone for any reason they wish. This would maximize free will and freedom of association. Or we could follow an opposite, heavy-handed approach that requires everyone to service anyone that wishes to utilize someone’s services and is able to pay for it. This would maximize access in an open society and present more opportunities for more people. Each of these options however comes at a cost. The former threatens to create a less-stable, divided, tiered society of unequal access, especially for groups that have historically suffered discrimination based on certain characteristics. The latter threatens to become oppressive, as it disregards the conscience and substitutes coercion for free will. It also stifles genuine cosmopolitanism and understanding between different groups as it forces a somewhat artificial togetherness. For better or worse, our society in various ways, on the state and federal level, has slowly crafted laws and regulations that blazed a middle path between these two extremes. Problems with practical application aside, the reasoning behind this middle-ground approach is logical and it is based on recognizing and sorting competing fundamental rights and inherent “goods” in context, it is not merely a wishy-washy compromise. Groups that have experienced discrimination historically have been guaranteed access to general public accomodations so that they may live their lives without unreasonable inconvenience and obtain the goods and services necessary for human flourishing (goods that would be unavailable to them otherwise). On the other hand, our law recognizes there must be exceptions made for, and/or respect for the rights of, business owners and service providers that cannot participate in certain activity because of religious beliefs, genuinely held convictions, or other reasons that conflict with their valid interests. Being forced to do so by a government would be comparable to forced-speech or a denial of their speech; it would disregard their consent in a manner that violates their First Amendment rights, their autonomy, or it may present other inherent contradictions that cannot justify the coercion.
We may not always be able to “get along” insofar as agreeing on things like guiding ideals, cultural practices, or individual lifestyles. But we ought to be able to craft a logical system that fosters tolerance and common decency in the public square because at fundamental levels we are all the same and have similar needs. When disagreements like this Metzger/Family Foundation incident occur, we must sort through it and identify the relevant points to match them with our current understanding and laws. There is a lot of ignorant, misguided framing surrounding these types of incidents and with the Supreme Court weighing in on a similar matter soon, we must be ready to process their decision rationally to avoid violent reactions and attempts to spin it for hateful, partisan reasons. Above all, love one another, treat people with respect, and don’t expect government coercion to be the answer to forcing others to comply with your desires when it is unwarranted.