Political discourse frequently casts religious liberty and rights of sexual minorities in intractable opposition. San Antonio’s decision to deny Chick-fil-A a concession at its airport is just the latest example. In truth, neutrally applicable laws that protect religious liberty are better for everyone’s freedom — and for business.
The Texas Senate and House passed Senate Bill 1978 to protect businesses like Chick-fil-A and people of faith across Texas from governmental entities who might take adverse action against them on the basis of their beliefs. The Senate had already passed Senate Bill 17, a solid bill that would have protected the rights of state-licensed workers (and businesses) to observe and speak about their faith and turn down work that conflicts with their faith, but SB 1978 is the one that passed in the House. Opponents of both bills suggested that they would enable discrimination against gay and trans people and that this discrimination will be bad for business, but the evidence is flimsy at best. The Greater Houston Partnership similarly warned that repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, in 2015 would spell doom for Houston’s businesses, but as Texas Monthly reported, the impact was “nothing, nada, zilch.”
No one deserves to be discriminated against unfairly or even treated unkindly because of their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or different abilities. But today, the word “discrimination” has evolved to mean “you don’t agree with me,” or “you hurt my feelings.” Instead of “discrimination,” we should talk about fair treatment — creating an environment where everyone can flourish. Fair treatment means banning racial discrimination outright, allowing sex discrimination for team sports, and requiring special accommodations for the differently abled. And fair treatmentalso requires accommodating the free exercise and expression of religion, even when it goes against the mainstream.
Laws protecting free speech and religious liberty must treat the gay or trans person who believes in same-sex marriage and gender fluidity the same as the conservative Muslim or Christian who does not. SB 17 and SB 1978 are religion-neutral proposals. If passed, no government official could take away a person’s license to earn a living simply for having personal convictions that run counter to the government’s preferred policy position.
But what about the claim that these bills give Texans a “license to discriminate”? Lobbying organizations like Equality Texas and Texas Competes advancing this claim miss the fundamental point: the proposals would give all Texans — gay, trans, Christian, Jew, Muslim — the right to make a living without having to choose between their license and their beliefs. As much as society should promote the human dignity of all people, it is an intolerable indignity to deny human beings the right to choose how they put their hands and minds to work.
Indeed, “pro-LGBT” anti-discrimination laws can have unintended consequences that hurt the gay community. A gay bar in Denver catered to the “bear” subculture for more than two decades by banning dresses, wigs and perfumes, regardless of the wearer’s sex or gender identity. But the bar had to abandon its target market because Colorado’s “pro-LGBT” anti-discrimination law prohibited the bar from “wrongly” favoring men who embrace a “hyper-masculine” image. It went out of business four years later. Is reducing choice and diversity of business offerings what the gay community — or any community — wants and needs?
All Americans want and benefit from diversity and freedom to choose in the marketplace. Lululemon markets athletic wear exclusively to size 2-12 women, Lane Bryant focuses on plus sizes, and both have become successful national brands. When rules limit a business’s ability to creatively satisfy consumers’ individual tastes and preferences, both consumers and businesses suffer. And entrepreneurs suffer the most because the best points of market entry — whether for designers, retailers or service providers — are businesses that cater directly to well-defined, often small, segments of the overall consumer market.
Certainly, government should step in to end invasive and invidious discrimination, as it did when it ended racial segregation. But that is not the case here. A PRRI study found that 69% of Americans — and 66% of Texans — favor nondiscrimination protections for sexual minorities. Absent proof of harm, government should allow as much freedom, entrepreneurship and right to choose as consumers want.
A neutral law protecting everyone’s freedom is good for religious liberties and good for sexual minorities. That’s why even the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas have supported SB 17 — because it would protect everyone’s freedom, and that’s also good for business.
This has been updated to reflect actions by the Legislature since it first appeared.